Children playing
Families eligible for the childcare expansion plan could claim 30 hours of free childcare per week for children as young as nine months in England. Aly Song/Reuters

The government's initial phase of a childcare expansion plan, featuring a £6.5 million recruitment campaign, has faced criticism from sector leaders who label it as "too late" and "a drop in the ocean".

Set to commence as a trial across 20 local authorities in England from April, the campaign also promises a £1,000 cash incentive for recruits and those returning to the early years' workforce shortly after assuming their roles.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced in March of the previous year that families eligible for the childcare expansion plan could claim 30 hours of free childcare per week for children as young as nine months in England.

Starting in April, working parents of two-year-olds will have access to 15 hours of free childcare, with this provision extending to working parents of all children older than nine months from September.

One of the primary concerns raised by critics is the impact of chronic underfunding on the quality of early years provision.

Over the years, early years settings have faced financial challenges, leading to understaffing, inadequate resources, and substandard facilities.

The meagre £6.5 million injection, critics argue, falls short of the substantial investment required to bring about meaningful change.

David Johnston, the children and families minister, said: "One of the things that people in the sector say to me is that too often people feel that they're seen as babysitters rather than what they actually are, which is early educators who are playing a vital role in a child's first five years.

"So what we're trying to do both with the financial incentives – but more with the big national campaign – is get people to understand just how important these roles are and the difference you can make in shaping young lives at the earliest stage."

Moreover, concerns have been raised about the lack of specific details on how the funds will be distributed and whether they will reach the grassroots level where the challenges are most acute.

Without a clear and transparent strategy, experts fear that the money might not effectively address the issues it intends to tackle.

Parental involvement and engagement in early years education have also been highlighted as key factors in a child's development.

Critics argue that a more holistic approach, involving parents and communities, is necessary for sustainable change.

The £6.5 million plan, they contend, overlooks this vital aspect and falls short of addressing the wider systemic challenges.

The Department for Education's recruitment drive aims to boost enrolment throughout the sector by showcasing various career paths and advancement prospects within childcare.

The chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), Purnima Tanuku, said: "It's important to stress that this campaign comes too late to support nurseries with the first phase of the childcare expansion, which begins in two months. Campaigns like this take time to have a positive impact and the sector needs qualified and experienced staff now."

She added: "The sector needs thousands more staff so we hope that the tax-free incentive will form part of a comprehensive workforce plan if the pilot is successful."

Joeli Brearley, the founder of the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, said: "These plans are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but they're a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed. The sector needs tens of thousands more early-years professionals if it is to meet the demand for places.

"A one-off payment doesn't deal with the fundamental issue that early years professionals leave the sector because the pay is dreadful and the work can be hugely stressful. The only way to sustainably solve the staffing crisis is to increase wages."

As the debate continues, the early years sector and its advocates call for a more substantial and comprehensive investment to ensure the long-term well-being and development of the youngest members of society.