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Britain’s education secretary has admitted she cannot guarantee all parents in England will be able to access the government’s extended childcare offer.
From April, the current entitlement to 30 hours of free infant care a week for three- and four-year-olds in England will be widened gradually to all infants over nine months with two working parents until the child starts school.
But childcare experts have warned that the sector lacks the resources to deliver ministers’ plans, which they say will have the unintended consequence of forcing providers to close their doors.
Campaign groups have also cautioned that many providers are intending to limit the number of funded places they offer and in some cases to opt out entirely.
Asked if she could guarantee that all parents would be able to access the extended entitlement, Gillian Keegan told Sky News: “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.”
She added: “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 expansion of the entitlement, announced by chancellor Jeremy Hunt in the spring Budget last year, comes after a steep decline in the number of nurseries and childminders over the past 10 years.
The number of infant care providers in England dropped 5 per cent between 2022 and 2023, according to figures published by the Department for Education in December, driven in part by a 10 per cent fall in childminders.
Between 2018 and 2023, the number of providers declined by 15 per cent while the number of childminders, individuals who look after children in their own home, plunged 31 per cent, the data showed.
Meanwhile charities and campaign groups have warned that parents are struggling to access the weekly 15-hour entitlement for two-year-olds, which comes into force in April and marks the first stage of the rollout.
Joeli Brearley, chief executive and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said the rollout “continues to fill our inbox with worried parents who are being left behind” and that some parents had reported “being hit with eye-watering top-up fees”.