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Labour claims Government’s childcare pledge ‘built on sand’ as row escalates

A row over childcare escalated on Wednesday as Bridget Phillipson claimed the Government’s plan for the sector was “built on sand” amid concerns over recruitment.

Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, acknowledged on Tuesday that the sector will require an extra 40,000 workers to meet demand for the Government’s major childcare expansion.

Ministers launched a £6.5m emergency recruitment drive in February in an attempt to salvage the latest rollout amid warnings that as many as 50,000 staff would be needed.

It came after the Early Education and Childcare Coalition (EECC) said in January that the Government was “delusional” to insist it could meet its pledge to extend free childcare to eligible families by September 2025 without a major recruitment drive.

As of 1 April, parents of two-year-olds in England are eligible for 15 hours of Government-funded childcare a week during term time. This will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September, with the Government promising to double this to 30 free hours a week to all eligible families from September 2025.

But Ms Phillipson, the shadow Education Secretary, claimed staff would “have to rise to unprecedented levels in the next year” to recruit the number of staff needed.

Latest official figures show there were an estimated 347,300 childcare staff last year – with around 390,000 thought to be needed to meet the Government’s expansion.

Last year saw 12,900 staff join the workforce, or around 3.9 per cent – a huge improvement compared to a 1.8 per cent rise in 2022.

Labour claimed that at the current rate, it would take at least three years to reach the Government’s target of 40,000 new childcare staff, while it could take as long as a decade to hit the target based on more the glacial increase in figures the years prior.

Ms Phillipson told i: “The Education Secretary has said that the Conservatives’ childcare offer will work only with another 40,000 staff, but numbers of new staff will have to rise to unprecedented levels in the next year to hit that target.

“It is further evidence that the Tories’ childcare pledge is built on sand – and yet again parents and children will end up paying the price of Conservative lies and broken promises.”

However, senior Government sources noted that last year’s figures came before the latest recruitment drive and prior to giveaways announced by Jeremy Hunt in the latest Budget.

The Chancellor announced an extra £500m to increase rates paid to nurseries over the next two years, plus £1,000 bonuses for new childcare workers to lure people to the profession.

It comes amid a heightening war of words between Ms Phillipson and Ms Keegan as Labour and the Conservatives lock horns over their plans for the sector.

Ms Phillipson confirmed on Tuesday that Labour will stick with the Government’s childcare expansion if the party wins the general election, though it is still reviewing how to do so.

But the party’s latest analysis of childcare figures suggests that while it intends to commit to the Government’s major expansion of the sector, it is spelling out in stark terms the difficulties of the challenge ahead.

The party has asked former Ofsted chief inspector Sir David Bell to undertake a review of the current system. i understands his report will focus on staffing in the sector, which remains the main hurdle to expanding provision.

Labour has hinted at plans to encourage primary schools to set up new nursery centres in existing schools buildings, in a bid to drive down costs.

It comes despite latest figures showing that staff costs accounted for 85 per cent of budgets for nurseries based out of schools this year, and 75 per cent for private settings. Meanwhile, rent and mortgage repayments made up just two per cent of costs in school nurseries and seven per cent in private providers.

However, i understands Labour has balanced this against the increasing number of childcare providers that are closing in some parts of the country and creating “childcare deserts”.

Meanwhile, Ms Keegan has accused her counterpart of failing to come up with a plan on childcare.

In a letter to Ms Phillipson on Monday, the Education Secretary accused Labour of sowing uncertainty among working parents by backtracking on the Government’s plans and failing to offer a solution.

She dismissed initial recruitment problems with the Government’s latest rollout as “teething troubles” and said she was “very confident” about allocating 150,000 places for two-year-olds within days.

“We think by the end of this rollout, by September 2025, we’ll need about 40,000 or more people working in the sector,” she said, noting that Labour was still yet to announce its full plan for the sector.

But in a letter to the Education Secretary first revealed by i, Ms Phillipson dismissed the claims as “utter nonsense” on Tuesday and accused Ms Keegan of spouting “an outright lie”.

“Labour will not be removing any entitlements offered to families now or those promised to them in the future. Your suggestion to the contrary is an outright lie – and the public will not believe a word of it,” said Ms Phillipson.

“Rather than peddle lies, either get on with your job or call a general election.”

A Government source said Labour’s latest calculations on recruitment were “totally wrong”.

“Last year alone we increased staff numbers by 13,000 and that was before we introduced recruitment incentives of £1,000, increased funding, and introduced new routes into the sector,” they said.

“Only the Conservatives will deliver for hard-working parents with 30 hours free childcare from nine months until their child starts school.

“Labour has no plan for childcare and are not being straight with the British people. Labour still won’t commit to rolling out our plan by September 2025. Labour can’t be trusted and will unravel our childcare plan – taking us back to square one.”

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