Labour estimates 60,000 shortfall in free childcare places

By Laura McCardle

| 17 June 2014

Nearly half of local authorities look set to have insufficient nursery places available to deliver free childcare for all eligible two-year-olds just months before the expansion of the scheme, new figures show.

The number of two-year-olds eligible for free childcare under the government scheme will double from September.

Data obtained through a Freedom of Information request by shadow childcare minister Lucy Powell has found that 44 per cent of councils do not expect to have sufficient places when the second year of the government's free childcare scheme for two-year-olds begins.

The findings have led Labour to estimate that local authorities will be 60,000 places short of the 260,000 expected to be needed by the September deadline.

From September, the number of children eligible to receive 15 hours of free childcare a week from a local provider rated “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted will rise from 130,000 to 260,000.

The data obtained by Labour also shows that two-thirds of councils had failed to secure sufficient places for every disadvantaged two-year-old who became eligible for a free place in the first year of the scheme.

Commenting on the findings, Powell said: “Despite plenty of warning, the government is way off track in delivering its flagship childcare policy for two-year-olds.

“David Cameron promised 260,000 parents and children a free 15-hour place this September, yet with just three months to go ministers are failing to deliver.

“Nearly half of councils lack sufficient places and two-thirds of councils don’t have enough quality places to make the biggest difference to children’s life chances.”

In December, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that local authorities will receive £755m to deliver free childcare places for disadvantaged two-year-olds in the autumn. The funding will pay for the expansion of the free childcare scheme, which began in September 2013.

June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation, has urged the government to be cautious with the extension of the initiative and put the needs of children first.

She said: “We have always said that while we believe that it is a laudable ambition to push this offer, we feel that it has been a case of too much, too soon.

“The offer needs to be funded correctly and childcare needs to be provided in the right environment. We must think about what is important for the child first and we need to invest in the right staff.”

Meanwhile Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, has suggested that local authorities work with the voluntary sector in order to ensure enough places are created by the September target date.

She said: "The introduction of the free entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds holds real potential to turn around the life chances of our most vulnerable children.

"To meet the additional demand when the programme is extended in September, local authorities must work closely with the voluntary sector to expand provision and raise quality to make this hugely important ambition a reality."

A spokesman for the Department for Education has defended the initiative.

He said: “Thanks to our reforms, 116,000 of the two-year-olds currently eligible are already accessing a funded early learning place.

“With over 300,000 places available across the country, there are places for eligible two-year-olds whose parents want to take up the offer – in fact local authorities should be playing an active role in ensuring parents are aware of their entitlement.”

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