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The Conservatives will double the current free childcare entitlement for all three and four year olds from 15 hours a week to 30 hours a week if they stay in power after the general election on 7 May.
Publishing the party’s manifesto today, David Cameron has announced the plan to help working parents facing high early years childcare costs. The current 15 hours of entitlement is available for families where all parents are working.
The Conservative manifesto states: “We have already legislated to introduce tax-free childcare in the next Parliament – worth up to £2,000 per child per year – to help parents who want to work. We introduced 15 hours a week of free childcare for all three and four-year-olds and the most deprived two-year-olds.
“And because working families with children under school age face particularly high childcare costs, in the next Parliament we will give families where all parents are working an entitlement to 30 hours of free childcare for their three and four year-olds.”
The plans have faced criticism by both the Pre-school Learning Alliance and the National Day Nurseries Association, with both questioning whether the promise will be financially viable after highlighting continuing struggles faced by the sector with the current levels of free childcare entitlement.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “Although in theory any steps taken to improve the availability of childcare are positive, we would seriously question how feasible this pledge is in practice.
“At the moment, government funding does not cover the cost of delivering 15 hours of childcare for three- and four-year-olds, and so it has been left to providers and parents to make up the shortfall. It is difficult to see, therefore, how plans to double the current offer without addressing this historic underfunding can be implemented without leading to even higher childcare costs, or risking the sustainability of the sector altogether.
“Given that only a few months ago, we were told that it was ‘nonsense’ to suggest that the early years sector is underfunded, we warmly welcome the commitment to raise local funding rates. That said, it seems somewhat counterintuitive to commit to doubling the free entitlement offer before consulting with providers to find out the size of the current funding shortfall. While this is clearly an attractive pre-election pledge, it must be adequately costed if it is to succeed in the long-term.”
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of NDNA, said: “While we welcome this commitment to provide more support to families with the cost of childcare, we warn that doubling the number of hours will just double the problem, resulting in significant cost increases for parents of children under three and also nursery closures.
“With the current 15 free hours, there is already a chronic underfunding issue, so any extension of this provision must be thoroughly costed and properly funded so that it can be delivered sustainably and without a reduction in quality.
“For most nurseries, the average sum received of £3.80 per hour does not cover the cost of high-quality childcare.
“We are pleased that politicians recognise the benefit and value of free early education, but the quality of this provision needs to continue to be high for this to be effective.”