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Education Secretary ‘confident’ Government will deliver childcare expansion plan

The Education Secretary has said she is “confident” that the Government will deliver its pledge to expand funded childcare for working families in England.

Gillian Keegan said the Government is “on track” to deliver the first phase of its rollout next week to 150,000 working parents of two-year-olds.

Eligible families of children as young as nine months old in England will be able to claim 30 hours of free childcare a week by September 2025 under the offer.

But the Cabinet minister warned the Labour Party could put the expansion plan “at risk” if it wins the forthcoming general election.

She added that cancelling the policy would be “disastrous” for parents.

Her comments came after Labour suggested it would review the Government’s expanded offer of funded childcare if it gets into power.

As part of a staggered rollout of the policy, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare from Monday.

This will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September this year, before the full rollout of 30 hours a week to all eligible families a year later.

Speaking on Wednesday – just days before the first phase of the expanded scheme starts – Ms Keegan said: “I will deliver what we’ve promised. We are on track to deliver for 150,000 parents starting next week.”

Concerns have been raised that many childcare providers will struggle to meet increased demand for funded places under the Government’s expanded offer.

But Ms Keegan suggested Labour is the “biggest threat” to the plan.

She said: “We feel confident that not only will we be able to deliver this service, but this service will also provide great business prospects for many – either to grow their business or even enter the business.”

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson told BBC Newsnight that the Government risks “crashing the childcare system” because there is a lack of places for parents and providers are already struggling.

In October, Labour announced that Sir David Bell, former chief inspector of schools, would lead a review into early years for the party.

Asked by BBC Newsnight whether Labour is planning to go back to the drawing board on the childcare expansion plan if it wins the general election, Ms Phillipson said the system “does require reform”.

Ms Keegan suggested on Wednesday that Labour is planning to “cancel” the Government’s rollout of childcare expansion for working parents.

She said: “It would be disastrous. If you want to talk about ill-thought-through policies, that’s what Labour have.”

A Labour spokesman said: “This is utter nonsense from a Conservative Party that still can’t guarantee parents the childcare it promised them with just days to go before the rollout of new funded hours.

“Labour will not take away families’ entitlements – we want childcare to be affordable, accessible and available.

“That is why the respected former Ofsted chief inspector Sir David Bell is leading a review of early education and childcare to ensure that all families can access the childcare to which they’re entitled.”

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance (EYA), said: “We have long argued that promising parents more and more ‘free childcare’ without tackling the fundamental issues facing the sector would simply exacerbate existing challenges and pile even greater pressure on providers.

“With early years settings already warning that the expansion plans are not workable in the long term, it’s clear that simply continuing along the current path – and ignoring the concerns of both the sector and parents – is not an option.

“Whichever political party is in power after the next election, we’re clear that a comprehensive review and wholesale reform of the entire early years system is desperately needed if we are ever going to be able to deliver the affordable, accessible, quality care and education that families need and deserve.”