Education secretary Gillian Keegan has said she will end this Parliament with a “fully planned, fully deliverable policy for free childcare” – but there are industry fears parents could end up paying higher fees for childcare after “sustained underfunding”.

Speaking at Meadow View Childcare in Welwyn, Ms Keegan said her department’s plan to roll out 30 hours of free childcare places per week for children aged under three is “more than any government has ever done in our country’s history”.

Eligible working parents or carers of children aged three to four in England can already claim 30 hours of childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year.

From April 2024, eligible working parents or carers of children aged two can claim 15 hours of free childcare support – an offer previously only available to parents of children who receive support for special educational needs and disabilities, and parents who receive some benefits.

From September, the 15-hour offer will apply to working parents or carers of children nine months or older.

The Department for Education will extend the offer to 30 hours per week from September 2025, which will apply to childcare places for children aged nine months old up until school age.

The Comet: Meadow View in Welwyn, Hertfordshire.Meadow View in Welwyn, Hertfordshire. (Image: Will Durrant, LDRS)

Neil Leitch, Early Years Alliance CEO,  warned “‘more free childcare’ is meaningless” without more money for nursery places.

Ms Keegan told the Local Democracy Reporting Service sector investment is a “huge part” of the Department for Education’s plan for childcare.

The Conservative MP for Chichester said: “Workforce is very important. We’ve really been focused on making sure we not only attract people into working in this sector, but we retain them by progressing their careers as well.

“In the last year alone, we have an extra 13,000 people working in the sector.

“We are proving this is an attractive sector and we need to continue that level of increase to roll out the full policy, but that’s been a huge part of the process.”

The Comet: Education secretary Gillian Keegan visits Meadow View Childcare in WelwynEducation secretary Gillian Keegan visits Meadow View Childcare in Welwyn (Image: Will Durrant, LDRS)

Ms Keegan added: “We’re going to be buying a lot of the childcare market by the time this policy is going to be rolled out, so we’re going to do that in a way which makes these businesses sustainable.”

She said the Labour Party has not promised to “back the plan” which she has laid out.

“They’ve not got any plan for childcare,” Ms Keegan said.

The Comet: Mia Fulga, nursery manager (left), and Lisa Lucas, nursery owner (right), with education secretary Gillian Keegan (centre) in WelwynMia Fulga, nursery manager (left), and Lisa Lucas, nursery owner (right), with education secretary Gillian Keegan (centre) in Welwyn (Image: Will Durrant, LDRS)

“The threat to this policy which is very, very popular with parents is a Labour government.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said Conservative ministers “risk crashing the childcare system” with the free childcare rollout.

Ms Phillipson told BBC Newsnight: “We’ve heard from providers that they are just going to really struggle to make this happen.

The Comet: Alistair Strathern and Bridget Phillipson meet apprentices and former apprentices at Amazing Apprenticeships in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.Alistair Strathern and Bridget Phillipson meet apprentices and former apprentices at Amazing Apprenticeships in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. (Image: Will Durrant, LDRS)

“What we hear from parents right across the country is that when they go and try to access these entitlements, these commitments the Conservatives have made, the places just aren’t there.”

The opposition frontbencher said she has asked Sir David Bell, former Ofsted chief inspector, to lead a review of early years places to help shape its commitments going into a general election, which must take place before the end of January 2025.

In the Childcare Survey, 55 per cent of the English councils which participated told charity Coram Family and Childcare they had sufficient childcare places for children aged three and four – funded as part of the existing 30 hours entitlement offer – “in all areas” in 2024.

This is down from 73 per cent in 2024.

A third of English councils (34 per cent) reported sufficient childcare across all age groups for parents who work full-time – a drop of 14 percentage points on 2023.

Mr Leitch, whose Early Years Alliance represents 14,000 members, said it has found 68 per cent of settings were full before the April expansion.

“As a result, many have had no choice but to limit the number of new funded places they offer,” he said.

“It’s completely unsurprising, therefore, that many parents accessing a place for the first time have found it difficult – if not impossible – to do so.

“Meanwhile, a combination of sustained underfunding and minimum wage rises has forced many providers to increase fees at an even higher rate than normal just to stay afloat – meaning that even those parents who have been able to access places are likely to see sharp increases in the cost of any paid-for hours.”

Mr Leitch called for “urgent action” from the Westminster government – including a “clear workforce strategy”.

He said: “Ministers have made a big promise to parents.”

Royston West and Rural councillor Steve Jarvis is the Liberal Democrat Group’s spokesperson for children, young people and families in Hertfordshire.

He said: “Thirty hours free childcare is an attempt to provide something that’s clearly needed, because for many parents, the cost of childcare is prohibitive.

“But providing childcare is not cheap to do legally, let alone well. Then there’s the cost of energy, business rates, and other costs.”

Cllr Jarvis added: “The issue is whether or not the funding is going to be sufficient to deliver this.”

Who is eligible for free childcare?

In April 2024, eligible working parents can claim 30 hours free childcare for their children aged three and four.

They can also claim 15 hours free childcare for children aged two.

Eligible parents of toddlers aged at least nine months old will also be entitled to claim 15 hours free childcare from September 2024, with applications due to open on Sunday, May 12.

Parents can claim if:

  • they are in work
  • they are on sick leave or annual leave
  • they are on shared parental, maternity or paternity leave
  • they are due to return from adoption leave within the 31 days after applying
  • they are starting or restarting work within the 31 days after applying
  • their partner is working and they are on carer’s leave
  • they receive Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, Limited Capability for Work Benefit, or the contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance.

According to the rules, parents and their partners aged 21 or over must expect to earn £2,380 before tax – or £183 per week – over the next three months, if they were to apply today.

This threshold is slightly lower for younger parents and apprentices, and for self-employed parents who started their business less than 12 months ago.

Dividends, interest, income from property investments and pension payments do not count towards parents’ earnings.

If parents or their partners expect to earn (adjusted net income) more than £100,000, they are not eligible for the offer.

The offer is open to parents with British or Irish citizenship, an EU Settlement Scheme status, or permission to access public funds.

Parents can check their eligibility on the government’s Childcare Choices website