Tens of thousands of parents could miss out on the 30-hour funded childcare offer due to a lack of available places, an early years organisation has warned.
The Pre-school Learning Alliance says a new independent report suggests that the government has significantly underestimated the number of families likely to be eligible for the scheme when it rolls out in September.
The government has estimated that 390,000 three- and four-year-olds will be eligible for the 30-hour offer, which is restricted to children from ‘working families’ meeting certain earnings thresholds.
However, independent research commissioned by the Pre-school Learning Alliance and undertaken by research company Ceeda, based on a survey of 1,708 households, suggests that the number of children currently meeting the eligibility criteria is 478,000 – 23% higher than the government’s estimate.
It adds that current government estimates do not take into account the impact of parents in working households making relatively small changes to their work patterns (e.g. increasing their hours) to become eligible for the scheme. According to Ceeda, such moves could account for a further 22,000 children becoming eligible for the offer, bringing total eligibility to around 500,000 overall – 28% higher than the government’s estimate.
Ceeda did not include parents from workless households moving out of unemployment and into work in its figures on the demand for childcare places due to the statistical uncertainty around whether intentions to return to work would necessarily translate into actions, and the additional challenges to taking such a step, such as a lack of available jobs. However, the Pre-school Learning Alliance says the fact that one of the government-stated aims of the 30-hour policy is to encourage parents (particularly mothers) who aren’t currently working to return to work could mean that the total demand for places in September will be even higher than the 500,000 estimate. Such parents are unaccounted for in government estimates, it states.
The findings come shortly after the Department for Education announced that the distribution of £50m in capital funding would create 9,000 new childcare places. The Alliance describes this as “a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed”.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “These figures are deeply concerning and suggest that the government has significantly underestimated the likely demand for places under the 30-hour offer.
“The Department for Education has been clear that the whole point of restricting the scheme to ‘working families’ is to encourage parents to go back to work, yet they don’t seem to have factored even the most modest of adjustments into their figures, such as parents working a few more hours to become eligible.
“Add to this the fact that many providers are warning that they are planning to either limit the number of 30-hour places they offer, or opt out of the scheme all together, and it’s clear that the government is heading for a childcare capacity crisis.
“The government must do more to support early years providers if the 30-hour scheme is to have any chance of working in the long-term. That means both adequately funding the creation of enough new places, and ensuring that the free entitlement offer in general is funded sufficiently in the long term.
“30 hours of so-called ‘free childcare’ may sound like a great policy, but if there aren’t enough places to match demand, and the government continues to refuse to listen to valid concerns over funding, the policy simply cannot succeed.”