Labour is considering creating thousands of nursery places inside existing primary schools in England and has tasked the former Ofsted head Sir David Bell with finding new ways to increase levels of childcare.

In the latest evolution of Labour’s policy in an area that still has a widespread shortage of spaces, plus a lack of affordability and staffing, Bell will advise on potential ways to tackle this, with detailed policies set out nearer the election.

Bell was chief inspector of Ofsted from 2002 to 2006, and went on to be the top civil servant at the Department for Education.

The plans, first reported by the Times, could include integrating nurseries into schools, meaning parents could take their children to the same site from the end of parental leave until the children are old enough to start at the school itself.

A Labour source said there was a particular focus on helping to create spaces in areas lacking them: “Childcare hours are no use to parents if they can’t get places – that’s why families are sceptical of what the Tories have offered, particularly in places Labour needs to win at the next election,” they said.

Other details have yet to be set out but Labour says the policy will be properly funded.

Asked about the funding on ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Thursday morning, Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general, said: “That’s why we need to have a proper review. One thing I can say to you is that anything we announce will be properly funded.”

Childcare, and particularly the lack of provision and affordability, could become a major battleground at the next election, with Labour set to attack the Conservatives for what it says is a lack of workable solutions.

The government has introduced an expansion of free provision, under which eligible working parents of two-year-olds will get 15 hours a week of taxpayer-funded childcare for 38 weeks of the year from next April.

After September 2025, all eligible parents of children under the age of five will be able to get funding for 30 hours a week of childcare for 38 weeks of the year.

However, experts have warned that access to this provision could be a postcode lottery, with a Guardian analysis last month showing the number of not-for-profit nurseries in England’s most-deprived areas has fallen sharply.

Labour had been considering the idea of universal free childcare for children over nine months old, but is now considering a means-tested system instead, tapering off support for higher-income families.

The UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world, with some parents spending as much as 80% of their take-home pay on care for young children.

As part of research into what Labour could offer, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, has visited countries including Estonia and Australia to see how they provide early years care.

The lack of affordable childcare spaces is also seen as having a significant economic impact, with parents of young children, generally mothers, forced to quit jobs or cut back hours.

Last month a survey by the Fawcett Society estimated about 250,000 mothers with young children had left their jobs because of difficulties with balancing work and childcare.

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