You are here: News First phase of funded childcare expansion rolled out

This month, the first phase of the potentially game-changing expansion of funded childcare rolled out across England. Amid problems with troublesome temporary codes, and competition for childcare places, eligible working parents of 2-year-olds can now access 15 hours per week of funded childcare, during term time.

This is ahead of phase two in September, where 15 hours per week of funded childcare will be extended to eligible working parents of children from the age of 9 months to 3 years, and phase three in September 2025, where eligible working parents with a child from 9 months old up to school age will be entitled to 30 hours of funded childcare a week. To qualify for the new hours, the majority of parents must earn more than £8,670, but less than £100,000 per year.

While the new hours have the potential to support many working parents, the rollout has not been without its challenges. Some of these were anticipated in our annual Childcare Survey which has been featured in numerous news articles this past fortnight about the rollout and what it means for parents. Here is a round-up of the coverage:

The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, called it a “positive and exciting moment”, asserting that the sector needs time to grow and expand (BBC). Meanwhile, Labour released their own research which found that childcare places in England have fallen by nearly 40,000 since 2010 (The Guardian). However, Labour committed to keep the government’s expanded hours.

Concerns over the sufficiency of childcare places to support the expansion come after years of underfunding and rising costs for providers. Low salaries in the sector make recruitment and staff retention a challenge, costs are rising for providers, and many early years settings did not sign up to the expansion scheme as they are already at capacity or cannot provide childcare places covered by the funding (The Times). Almost a quarter believe they are likely to close over the next 12 months, according to research from the Early Years Alliance (The Big Issue).

Pregnant Then Screwed found that most families they surveyed who are already using childcare were able to continue under the scheme this April. However, finding new childcare may be more difficult. The BBC interviewed Kirsten Buckley, from South Gloucestershire, who struggled for over a year to find childcare for her twins, despite starting to search for places straight after her 12-week scan. Our Childcare Survey looked ahead to September and found just 28% of local authorities were confident there would be enough places to meet demand for the next phase of the expansion, dropping to 12% for the final phase in September 2025.

Much of the coverage focused on costs. iNews highlighted that the UK has some of the highest childcare costs in the world, citing the OECD which estimates that UK families spend around a third of their household income on childcare. Many parents have faced price increases over the past six months, and expect more again in the upcoming six months, as providers struggling with rising costs put up fees to keep afloat. For many parents, recent price hikes “swallowed up” the estimated savings of the expansion to 15 hours for two-year-olds (Pregnant Then Screwed). The Standard fears “ghost areas” are developing in London because families cannot afford to live there. Meanwhile, Grazia wrote about women who want children but are delaying, because they don’t feel they can afford it. 

The Childcare Survey sounds the alarm over provision for disadvantaged children. LGA First featured our finding that only 6% of local authorities in England have enough childcare places for children with SEND and reported on families of children with SEND being slowly turning away by early years settings. The focus of the expansion on working parents also risks marginalising children from poorer families, who may find themselves squeezed out.

Many pieces also explored the personal impact the childcare expansion may have on parents. Nell Frizzell in Vogue wrote about her son’s first day at nursery and “the kind of startling, precious, emotionally complicated freedom” she had that day. In The Guardian, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett shared her bizarre experience of being told that her son does not exist.

The picture that is forming is one of huge potential, but low sector pay, high staff turnover, rising costs for providers and resulting concerns over sufficiency of available places, all mean that the reality of the childcare expansion may not live up to parent’s expectations. At the release of our Childcare Survey, Ellen Broomé, Managing Director of Coram Family and Childcare, said:

The recent additional funding from the Chancellor was welcome but won’t address the long term systemic challenges of high childcare costs for parents, the workforce recruitment and retention crisis or the lack of availability of places for children with SEND.

Over the next few months, we need the Government to work closely with local authorities and childcare providers to make sure they are supported to deliver for families. And in this election year, we call upon any future government to commit to reforming our childcare system to make sure all children can access high quality early years education and all parents can make meaningful choices about work and care.