Employment

Sunak's flagship free childcare scheme under threat from staffing 'crisis'

Free childcare is expanding to more families from September, but councils are concerned there will not be enough places to meet the surge in demand, meaning children will miss out

child at window

15 hours of free childcare is set to be expanded to children aged from nine months. Image: Unsplash

Councils fear there are too few nursery spaces to meet demand for free childcare as the early years sector faces a “recruitment and retention crisis”.

The government is set to expand its free childcare offer further from September 2024, offering 15 hours free each week to eligible working parents with a child from the age of nine months.

Yet six in ten councils are either not confident or unsure if there will be sufficient places to meet the surge in demand, according to new research from Coram Family and Childcare.

Councils are far less likely to feel confident about the final phase of the roll-out in September 2025, when eligible children will receive 30 hours of free childcare from nine months old.

Just 11% of councils said that they are “confident” or “very confident” there will be enough places to meet demand.

Lydia Hodges, the head of Coram Family and Childcare, told the Big Issue: “The extra funding for childcare has the potential to be a real game changer for families to give parents access back into the workplace. And also for children, we know early education really boosts their outcomes.

“So getting it right is really important for everybody that cares about children’s outcomes. It’s also about increasing the labour market participation, particularly for for mothers. That’s why it’s so important to get that right, so that it fulfils its potential.”



It follows previous reporting from the Big Issue around how children from the poorest backgrounds will miss out on the free childcare offer, and how early years settings face a “staffing crisis” and “years of sustained underfunding”.

Previous research from the Early Years Alliance found that more than two thirds (63%) of early years providers are currently full, and waiting lists are stretching for years. One provider told the Big Issue that people are starting to contact nurseries to get on waiting lists “before they are even pregnant”.

This latest research builds on those concerns. Just over half (52%) of councils say that all or almost all eligible parents in their area who wanted to take up free childcare entitlements have been able to so far.

The vast majority of councils (75%) said their biggest worry in delivering the expansion is the childcare workforce, as the sector faces “significant challenges” to recruit and retain staff. This is three times higher than any other concern.

Hodges said: “For the next government, the most important thing is to invest in the early years sector and especially the workforce. We asked councils for their biggest concern about delivering that expansion, and it was overwhelmingly the workforce. We have a recruitment and a retention crisis.

“We know we’re struggling to get the right people with the right skills and to hold on to those people. And to do that, we need a proper workforce strategy with better pay and progression, recognition and value for those early years educators. So it’s really important that the next government makes that a priority, to make sure that you know those children aren’t missing out on that opportunity.”

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