The major political parties are promising dramatic increases in free nursery provision.
This could be great news for parents - but only if the numbers add up.
The Conservatives have raised their pledge to 30 free hours, more than Labour's 25 and the Liberal Democrats' 20 - all way more than the current 15 hours per week.
But National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) and the nursery sector are this week asking the following questions:
- Where is the capacity for so many more children in the nursery system?
- Where are the staff to care for them?
- And where is the money to fund this expansion?
Nurseries are already making a loss on funded places of 15 hours a week. They receive an average of £3.80 per hour to deliver this, which simply does not cover the cost.
Providing free places is a loss leader that private nurseries constantly struggle with. They want to give parents the help that the free 15 hours brings. But the care must be high quality and that cannot be delivered so cheaply.
NDNA members currently lose on average £800 a year per funded three or four-year-old and £700 per two-year-old.
Nurseries must balance the books and have no choice but to put up fees for other, paying parents, just to stay in business.
Doubling the number of free hours will just double the problem.
If the majority of places become free to parents, and the level of Government funding to nurseries through local authorities does not significantly increase, it will be disastrous for providers and families.
Nurseries will make bigger losses and some will undoubtedly close.
Great-quality childcare providers will simply fail to make ends meet and fold, leaving families having to find somewhere else for their children to get their early years care and education.
Other nurseries could struggle to recruit enough staff or to extend or reorganise their buildings quickly enough to meet demand.
Owners and managers already face difficulty finding enough good staff with the right qualifications and experience.
And it's very clear that £3.80 per child per hour will not allow for new extensions to be built or moves to larger, more suitable premises, to be made easily.
The end result would be a worse, not better, deal for families, and completely counter-productive for the politicians.
Care for children who don't qualify for free hours would be significantly more expensive.
And places could be much harder to find in a massively oversubscribed sector.
Expanding free childcare places is on the agenda whatever the colour and shape of the next Government but it cannot happen without more money being channelled to the front line.
NDNA is looking for a firm, forthright and specific commitment - not just to a funding review but to significantly enhanced hourly rates to childcare providers, as part of our Childcare Challenge to the new Government.
If it's not there - proudly promised alongside more free hours - any pledge of the latter will be unworkable.
Only one thing is certain at this stage. Trying to build upon the current, flawed system will not achieve any party's ambitions.Suggest a correction