Parents urged to ‘act now’ and apply early for September childcare as 150,000 two-year-olds eligible from next month

15 March 2024, 00:09 | Updated: 16 March 2024, 15:46

Children’s minister David Johnston met with childminders in Southwark.
Children’s minister David Johnston met with childminders in Southwark. Picture: LBC
Charlotte Lynch

By Charlotte Lynch

The government is urging parents to apply for Autumn childcare places now as it anticipates at least 150,000 two-year-olds will be eligible for free care hours from next month.

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Demand is expected to swell further from September, as babies aged nine months and older will be entitled to 15 hours of government-funded childcare a week.

Ahead of the largest ever expansion of free childcare in England, ministers are encouraging parents of younger children to apply for the second phase of the roll-out before the first phase has even begun, and ahead of the official opening date for applications on 12 May.

The Department for Education says parents should "act now" if they have a preferred provider as many settings hold waiting lists over six months.

The Children's Minister has insisted he is "confident" places will be available in every area of the country, but was unable to offer a guarantee that every application would be successful.

David Johnston told LBC: "Last year we saw a 15,000 increase in places and a near 13,000 increase in the number of staff... we're working very closely with every local authority to make sure they will have the places available for all the parents that need them and we feel confident that they will."

He admitted parents may have to compromise on their first choice of nursery as 'some [nursery] places are going to be very much more oversubscribed than others'.

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England’s Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza has told LBC News the nation’s childcare provision “is not where it needs to be”.

Speaking to Lisa Aziz she said: We need to really think deeply about this. When I go to schools to talk to parents it’s the teachers who chase me down the pathway and say we need more and better childcare. I think it’s a serious issue. I think the free childcare is a good step forward, but actually, we need to be supporting the workforce, the profession, and making sure we have the provisions we need. I don’t think it’s where it needs to be yet I’m afraid.”

The Department for Education has said parents should "act now".
The Department for Education has said parents should "act now". Picture: LBC

Mr Johnston said: "What I can't do is say every parent can have their first choice of nursery, any more than I can say every parent can have their first choice of secondary school... what we feel confident in is that in every local authority in the country there will be enough places needed for the working families who want to take up this entitlement".

It comes amid concerns of a recruitment crisis in the sector with fears there aren't enough staff available to meet the demand.

The minister was speaking at a 'stay and play' session at an Early Years Hub in south London, as he launched a new consultation to boost recruitment and retention for childminders.

Speaking to LBC during the visit, childminder Annette Kingsley-Scott said she was taking home less than minimum wage, because provisions like food, books and toys for children come out of her own pocket.

She said: "The costs associated with looking after other people's children are huge. I'm not currently earning minimum wage... it is a challenge when you might not be able to afford what other people can, for the hours you're actually working".

Ms Kingsley-Scott said she works an average of 60 hours per week and was motivated by "a passion for raising children's outcomes", but said she anticipated many of her colleagues were leaving because "you could earn more working in a supermarket."

Natalie Wright, who has been a childminder for 14 years, told LBC she feared there wouldn't be enough places available to support the roll-out.

She said: "At the moment we've got lots of nurseries around our area that aren't able to recruit and retain the nursery workers - they're finding it very difficult.

"I do worry, it's just so hard. There's a lot of pressure and demand, we're just trying our best to accommodate the needs."

Childminders, who are often self-employed, have been recognised as a 'key part' of the childcare market and the government says it's taking steps to increase childminder numbers, to offer more childcare options to parents.

It's launched a new consultation which will ask childminders, parents, providers and local authorities for their thoughts on how government can further support more childminders to join and stay in the profession.

Proposed changes include childminders who are employed by councils being paid monthly if they request it so they can better manage their finances.

The government says it's working to increase the number of staff and places across the sector, including a national recruitment campaign and over £400 million of additional investment to uplift funding rates in 2024-25.

In last week’s Spring Budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt promised to guarantee the rates that will be paid to childcare providers and an extra £500m over two years to support the sector to deliver the expanded childcare offer.