Within its pre-manifesto, published today, the political party outlines proposals to introduce 15 hours of free early education to all two-year-olds from September 2016. It would also extend the offer to working families of children aged between nine and 24 months.
In the longer term, the party says it would consider increasing the number of free hours from 15 to 20 a week for all twos.
The extension of free childcare would be paid for in part by scrapping the Conservatives plans to introduce a tax break for married couples.
The Liberal Democrat’s pre-mainfesto, which focuses on ‘improving the life chances of children and young people’, includes plans, already announced, to triple the Early Years Pupil Premium for nursery-age children to £1,000 a year, extend free school meals to all primary pupils and make the school food standards applicable to all schools, including free schools and academies.
The party has also committed to protecting the full education budget in the next Parliament. Currently funding is protected for children aged between five and 16, but the Liberal Democrats would ringfence spending for two- to 19-year-olds.
Jo Swinson, Liberal Democrat business minister, said, ‘Helping families with the cost of childcare is part of the Liberal Democrat plan to build a stronger economy and a fairer society where there is opportunity for everyone to get on in life.
‘Extending free early years education to all two-year-olds will benefit children and reduce childcare costs for working parents. It builds on our record in Government where we have expanded free early years education for every three- and four-year-old and provided it for the first time to two-year-olds from the most hard pressed families.
‘This is a ultimately a fundamental difference in values. Liberal Democrats want to help all families with childcare support and nursery education right the way through from the end of parental leave to the start of school. The Tories are more bothered about helping only some couples through a married couples’ tax break.’
Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, said, ‘The Liberal Democrats have rightly recognised that taking a significant step towards a commitment to universal childcare is one of the best ways to help families. Introducing free childcare for all two-year-olds and extending this to families of children aged between nine and 24 months where both parents work is very welcome.
‘Parents tell us that more affordable and flexible childcare is one of the things that would make the most difference to family life. With childcare such a pressing issue for most families, 4Children is calling on all parties to commit to a ten year plan for childcare for children from birth to the age of 14 to offer children the best start while supporting parents to work and remain financially independent.
‘This is a very welcome commitment from the Liberal Democrats pre-manifesto which is the kind of support parents are looking for. We need to see this kind of commitment reflected by all political parties and we need to be sure this is a top three priority for whichever political parties enter into negotiation if there is a coalition.’
Victoria Flint, head of communications at the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), said, 'PACEY supports all efforts to increase childcare support for families, including these new proposals to extend the 15 hour free entitlement to all two-year-olds. However, it’s the quality of childcare which makes the difference for children and families. We therefore believe that investing in the childcare workforce should be top of the list for all party manifestos so that those offering free childcare are providing the very highest quality service to families.'
Anand Shukla, chief executive of the Family and Childcare Trust, said, 'Having campaigned for a long time to give the free childcare offer to all families with two-year-olds, we welcome the Liberal Democrats’ proposals for this age group, and for recognising that working parents need help with childcare from the moment they return from parental leave.
'This is a good first step but more work needs to be done to ensure parents can access affordable, quality childcare when they need it.'
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said, 'All young children should have access to high-quality early education and care and this announcement is likely to be welcomed by families currently struggling with the rising cost of childcare.
'However, while we fully support the motivation behind these plans, unless more is done to tackle the chronic underfunding of the existing free entitlement offers, this initiative – though commendable in its aims – will simply not succeed in the long-term.
'Our recent Early Years Agenda survey of nearly 1,300 childcare professionals found that the funding currently given to early years providers offering two-year-old places is, on average, 60p per child per hour less than the cost of delivering these places. It’s this ongoing lack of adequate funding that has meant that, on the week of the extension of the scheme to 40 per cent of two-year-olds, there is still a significant shortfall in available places in many areas.
'The current situation – where providers themselves are forced to subsidise free entitlement offers to be able to continue delivering places to the families that need them – is simply unsustainable. As such, it is vital that any steps to extend existing offers are only taken after those developing policy have gained a full and clear understanding of the true cost delivering funded places, and can ensure that the initiative can be adequately funded.'
The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) has expressed the same concerns as the Pre-School Learning Alliance.
NDNA's chief executive Purnima Tanuku, said, 'High-quality early learning gives children a great start in life and supports families to balance work and home, so the promise of more free hours will be welcomed by many parents. This would be a massive expansion of funded childcare, and will only work if the government funding matches these ambitions, so we look forward to seeing more detail on the proposals.
'Currently nurseries are losing an average of £600 per child per year on free two-year-old places and £900 on three and four-year-old places. The reality is that more funded hours at a rate below the cost of providing places, just means more losses for nurseries. The flawed early years funding system is not a fit basis to build upon and must be radically overhauled for this ambitious expansion of places to be achievable. Money for funded places must be at a viable level to support high-quality places and a well-rewarded workforce, and be protected so it can only be spent on early years.'