DfE minister admits ‘challenge’ of Spring Budget childcare offer

Expansion of 30-hours-a-week entitlement requires renaissance in recruitment, Claire Coutinho tells MPs
Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

By Jim Dunton

09 May 2023

Education minister Claire Courtinho has acknowledged that there will need to be a step change in childcare recruitment for the government to successfully deliver on its flagship Spring Budget plans to expand working families’ entitlements.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt unveiled proposals in March to expand the current 30-hours-a-week offer of free childcare to cover children aged from nine months to three years old over the course of the next two years. The offer was framed as helping more parents with young children get back to work at a time when there are around a million vacancies in the UK economy.

However, MPs on the Education Select Committee heard last month that around 70,000 childcare places have been lost in recent years, calling into question the sector’s capacity to deliver on the pledge.

Appearing before the committee this morning, Courtinho – who is minister for children, families and wellbeing at DfE – said her department has work to do to make sure the flow of recruits into childcare is heading in the right direction.

“It’s certainly a challenge,” she said. “When you go and talk to the nurseries, finding the right staff is certainly one of the first things they all raise with me.

“We now have an opportunity with this expansion to look at this very carefully and make sure that we’re getting the right people coming into the sector.”

Courtinho said she is keen to make sure that childcare settings are viewed as “attractive” and “highly-valued” places to work, and that communicating that message will be important.

She added DfE is planning to look at entry routes and progression within the childcare sector, as well as at qualifications at all levels.

“That’s a piece of work that we’re going to do,” she said. “We’re working very closely with the sector in terms of staff and also providers in different parts of the system to try and make sure that we get this right, because I think it’s going to be absolutely fundamental.”

The “red book” supporting the Spring Budget costed the expansion of free childcare at £4.1bn in the years to 2027-28, even though the full offer will not be available until September 2025.

Delivering the Budget, Hunt acknowledged the need to recruit more childminders to support the offer. He said there would be a pilot incentive programme offering individual childminders £600 to sign up for the profession, rising to £1,200 if they signed up through an agency.

At today’s committee meeting, panel member Flick Drummond said witnesses at an earlier session had “laughed about” the £600 offer.

Earlier in the session, Courtinho said the Office for Budget Responsibility’s projection is that the expansion of free childcare will result in 60,000 people either returning to work or extending hours in their existing jobs.

Committee member Miriam Cates asked whether such numbers represent good value for the £4.1bn cost of the measure.

Courtinho said the expansion of free childcare is seen as a long-term measure to deliver multiple benefits.

“Firstly, this is about giving parents choice,” she said. “And actually there are lots of parents who want to work who can’t.

“It isn’t necessarily about the tax that they generate right now. If you’re thinking just about the tax benefits, it's about the entirety of their career.

“And we know that for lots of parents, not being able to get back into the workforce – particularly if that’s for a number of years – makes it harder for them to go back in later and also it affects their future earnings.

“So I don’t think you can just make a year-on-year comparison of tax generated per the amount you’re spending on childcare.”

The minister said wider benefits will include better mental health and improved career-progression opportunities for parents, as well as the “general ability” to choose whether to work.

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