The education secretary has admitted that she cannot guarantee the government’s pledge to provide new free childcare hours will be met on time as she is “not in control of all the bits”.
Gillian Keegan said tens of thousands of businesses were responsible for delivering the 15 hours of free childcare a week for two-years-olds from April, expanding to 30 hours for children as young as nine months by September 2025.
The Guardian revealed last month that the flagship scheme had been beset with problems, such as with the allocation of funding for nurseries and staff shortages, with the first phase due to start in just two months’ time.
There were also technical issues preventing parents from accessing the code they need to get the support promised by the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, in last spring’s budget.
Ministers have found an 11th-hour “workaround” to address parents’ concerns about accessing the new free childcare hours, in an attempt to get a grip on chaos surrounding the scheme’s introduction.
However, Keegan told Sky News’s Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips programme: “Guaranteeing something in the future is something that you can never do. All you can do is put all the plans in place and then react if you need to.
“I am really confident that all the things that we have done will mean that every parent who wants to have a place is going to have a place.
“But what you are asking me is to personally guarantee something on behalf of tens of thousands of businesses that are working out there to grow the capacity and to make sure that we have got the people in place.”
The former Tory education secretary Justine Greening said that delivering the extra hours would be “very challenging” but added that it would be a key test of the competence of Rishi Sunak’s government.
Parents of two-year-olds who qualify for free childcare in April have been given an automatic code to allow them to access funded hours. But early-years providers said it would do little to address a staffing crisis that would limit the number of places available.
Last week, the government launched a £6.5m-backed recruitment campaign to encourage people to work in early years just two months before the first phase of the expansion begins.
A trial – which will take place in 20 local authorities in England from April – will also give new recruits and returners to the early years workforce a £1,000 cash payment shortly after they take up a post.
But sector leaders and campaigners said the “Do Something Big” campaign had been launched too late and the proposals were “a drop in the ocean” compared with what was needed to support reforms.
Under the plans, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare from April. This will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September, and to 30 hours for these children within a year.