Stark warning for parents hoping to secure free childcare for their 2-year old in April, as government says it 'can't compel' providers to offer places

Parents could miss out on free childcare at their first choice nursery, amid staff and funding shortages (but could a new recruitment drive ease the pressure?)

Toddler playing with toys and other children at nursery
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Parents have been warned that they may miss out on government funded places with their first-choice childcare provider in April, when the 15 hours free childcare scheme is extended.

Despite the government pledging additional funding to nurseries offering free childcare places, and providing more flexibility on minimum staff-to-child-ratios, childcare providers are still facing issues when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff, as well as being chronically underfunded. This means that some childcare providers are unable to offer free places, despite the government's promises.

In the 2023 Spring Budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced that the 30 hours free childcare scheme would be extended to all eligible parents when their child turns nine months old. The extension is to be introduced in phases with the first phase - extending 15 hours free childcare to eligible parents of two-year olds - set to come into action in April 2024. But while the extension of the scheme seems like a great option to help working parents, the childcare supply shortage which puts a significant kink in the government's plans.

With more than 100,000 children registered for the free childcare extension since January, and nurseries unable to offer the places, parent's first choice might be off the table, as providers struggle to meet demand.

Nursery worker interacting with toddler in a nursery environment while other kids look on

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What can you do if you don't get the nursery place you wanted?

Short of researching your area for other places that are offering free childcare places, or reorganising the family budget to see if you can afford to pay for childcare, parents' hands are tied to a certain extend if their chosen provider isn't offering government-funded places right now. But there is hope that the government's newly launched recruitment drive will help ease some of the pressure on providers so we could see more places open up.

While it remains to be seen how the government will respond if it cannot deliver on its promises, it's worthwhile researching other approved childcare providers in your area to see if there is another one that would be a suitable option for your family. You can split your hours between more than one provider (although no more than two in a single day) if that helps.

Even if your chosen provider says its not currently offering government-funded places, it's still worth getting your child on the waitlist anyway. Other parents may not use their full entitlement of hours, while some might choose a different provider, freeing up a space.

Could a new recruitment drive help solve the childcare supply problem?

On 2 February 2024, the Department for Education has announced a new national recruitment drive, alongside a trial of £1,000 cash sign-on bonuses across 20 local authorities, to give childcare providers the staff they need to meet the demand for more childcare places.

Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan says: “The fantastic nurseries, childminders and professionals across the childcare sector are central to the success of this rollout and our new recruitment campaign will support them in continuing to deliver the flexible and high-quality childcare parents need.”

Speaking to the PA News Agency as the new recruitment drive was announced, Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, David Johnston, says: “I’m very confident that across the country we will have the number of places we need this coming April for the first 15 hours for two-year-olds.

“And of course there may well be providers who say that for whatever reason they don’t want to take children with the free hours that we’re paying for. We can’t compel them to do that.

“If there’s very high demand for the same place then of course there might be parents who are disappointed they couldn’t get their first choice.”

If you are worried about paying for childcare, even if you qualify for some free hours, then you might be able to get help with childcare costs. If you have had a baby and are on maternity leave, you might also be weighing up whether it's financially worth returning to work and wondering how the motherhood penalty might affect you.

Sarah Handley
Consumer Writer & Money Editor, GoodtoKnow

Sarah is GoodtoKnow’s Consumer Writer & Money Editor and is passionate about helping mums save money wherever they can - whether that's spending wisely on toys and kidswear or keeping on top of the latest news around childcare costs, child benefit, the motherhood penalty. A writer, journalist and editor with more than 15 years' experience, Sarah is all about the latest toy trends and is always on the look out for toys for her nephew or Goddaughters so that she remains one of their favourite grown ups. When not writing about money or best buys, Sarah can be found hanging out with her rockstar dog Pepsi, getting opinionated about a movie or learning British Sign Language.