The government is offering £1,000 to new childcare staff amid concerns about the rollout of free childcare hours in just two months’ time.
Nurseries and childminders say they are experiencing a recruitment and funding crisis which could derail plans to offer 15 subsidised hours a week to all two-year-olds in England.
Thousands of parents who have applied for the funding are thought to be in limbo as their provider hasn’t been told what rate they will get for each of these hours from the local authority.
Research suggests as many as 50,000 more staff may be needed to cope with increased demand when the 15 free hours are offered to babies from the age of nine months later this year.
It rises to 30 free hours for all under-fives from September 2025.
A £5m advertising campaign starts today offering tax-free cash payments for the first 3,000 people who qualify to work with pre-school children under a pilot scheme.
“We’re doing it because we know working families are struggling and childcare is a big component of their household budget.
“But there’s no doubt it’s a big delivery project. We are working on it; we are doing everything we can to make sure all those places are available.
“As of this morning there’s over 100,000 people who’ve got their code, so many, many people have. We issued the rates to local authorities in November, so every local authority has the funding rates that we are providing, which are much increased.
“So everybody can be comfortable that we are putting in the investment that’s required to grow this market.”
Ms Keegan denied parents were being given false hope, but said: “There have been some challenges, we’ve had to put some workarounds in place.”
She could not yet confirm how many extra staff the government believes will be needed.
The education secretary said the figure of 50,000 staff, from the Early Education and Childcare Coalition, was “misleading” as there is a high turnover of staff in the sector.
Nurseries still waiting to hear
A survey of local authorities by children’s charity Coram last week found 40% did not expect to have enough places in April, despite a £204m injection of Treasury funding.
Ministers will order councils – which have until 31 March to confirm their funding allocations for April – that they must provide their rates earlier as the scheme expands.
Stockwell Gardens Nursery in south London is among those waiting to hear about funding
Ten families already attending have applied for the free hours.
The manager, Bhumika Patel, said: “At the moment we are just waiting and telling them we’ll be in touch when we have more information. We don’t have anything to share yet.”
She said the nursery already has a waiting list, but parents with babies – or who are expecting – are already asking about the extension of free hours to babies.
June O’Sullivan OBE, who runs the London Early Years Foundation, a social enterprise of 39 nurseries which offers funded places to low-income families, predicted the later stages of the rollout would need to be slowed down.
“There’s a big panic, which is not very good for parents who think that they’re going to come on 1 April and we’re going to have all these places, which isn’t going to be the case,” she said.
“That’s been the real problem, and everyone is trying to scramble to fix it. There are simply not enough places because there are simply not enough places.
“I would say the government will have to slow it down, especially for babies who need specialist care. You can’t just throw babies in a room and say that’ll be fine.”
Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “This is a startling reminder that the Conservatives have offered a childcare pledge without a plan.
“Childcare staff are leaving in their droves, leading to nursery closures right across the country.
“Cheap bungs to new staff when existing workers are turning their back on this key industry will not magic up new places for parents.”
Councillor Louise Gittins, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “This announcement is a positive step towards addressing the capacity and workforce issues facing childcare providers.
“Councils have been working hard to support providers to increase their workforce, but many feel constrained by their inability [to] determine where new providers can be established.”