Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are planning to increase the current entitlement, and the Conservatives have talked up their record in Government on early years provision.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said currently total public spending on childcare stands at around £5.4 billion a year.
– Where do the parties stand?
In government, the Conservatives delivered 15 hours per week of free childcare to parents of three to four-year-olds, with 30 hours available to those meeting strict criteria and 15 hours for “disadvantaged” two-year-olds.
Labour is offering to provide 30 hours per week of free care to all children aged between two and four and reopen Sure Start children’s centres.
The Liberal Democrats are promising even more with a pledge of 35 hours of free childcare per week for parents when their baby reaches nine months.
– How much will it all cost?
The Government says it will be spending more than £6 billion a year on childcare by 2020. Labour said it would invest an extra £4.5 billion in early years services.
The Lib Dem proposals would cost £14.6 billion annually, £8.6 billion more than what the Conservatives are planning to spend.
– Why are nursery providers concerned?
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance charity, said the “lack of detail” on funding “will strike fear into the hearts of many providers”.
He added: “We currently have a funding shortfall in the early years of two thirds of a billion pounds. That shortfall, which has led to thousands of provider closures, is a direct result of an ongoing electoral arms race between political parties to entice parents with ‘free childcare’ without thinking through how it will be paid for. It has meant that very few parents receive truly ‘free’ childcare and has ultimately pushed up prices for non-funded hours.”
The IFS said policymakers “need to be clear about how their proposals fit with the existing landscape of early years services and with the twin goals of helping parents to work and supporting children to achieve their potential”.
– Who has welcomed the news?
The National Education Union welcomed the plans, with its joint general secretary Kevin Courtney saying:
“Free and universal provision of 30 hours of nursery education from age two upwards is an essential social investment.”
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said re-opening Sure Start centres “will offer a lifeline by providing education and health services to those families most in need, after years of cuts left them in tatters”.