Free childcare plans run risk of low-quality childcare, says UK’s spending watchdog

A new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned of the ‘significant uncertainties’ the government’s upcoming childcare entitlements may pose.

According to the report, while the Department for Education is on track to meet its April 2024 milestone for childcare, the department sees the likelihood of meeting its September 2024 and 2025 milestones as amber/red -problematic’.

Since the start of April, eligible working parents of 2-year-olds can access 15 hours of childcare support.

This will be expanded in September 2024 to eligible working parents of children from 9 months to three years old.

From September 2025, eligible working parents with a child from 9 months old up to school age will be entitled to 30 hours of childcare a week.

The DfE estimated it needed 7,000 additional places to satisfy demand in April 2024, and that it needs approximately 85,000 new places overall by September 2025.

A DfE survey of local authorities in March 2024 found only 34% were confident in meeting the September 2024 milestone of 15,500 additional places. The DfE said it expects confidence levels to increase ahead of the next milestone.

The early years workforce would need to expand by around 40,000 full-time equivalent staff, the DfE estimates.

However, the report shows that insufficient staff represents the ‘main barrier’ to childcare expansion and highlights the risks of ‘unintended consequences’, with large numbers of new or less qualified staff entering the workforce, including jeopardising the quality of provision.

It goes on to warn the risks reducing the number of places available for vulnerable children and of widening the attainment gap between children from more affluent families compared with disadvantaged peers.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said:  “Following the Spring Budget 2023, the government quickly established a programme to extend early years entitlements and sensibly staggered its rollout to reduce delivery risks.

“Despite the crucial role providers will play in delivering these reforms, consultation with the sector was hampered by the restrictions that apply when developing budget proposals. DfE then cancelled early testing plans, which exacerbated the significant uncertainty about the sector’s capacity and financial sustainability.

“The next phase of the reforms will be significantly more challenging, with little contingency and flexibility in its ambitious timetable. The department must monitor the programme closely and respond promptly to emerging risks.”

You may also like...