Report warns childcare plans may increase ‘childcare desert’ gap

A new report outlines the growing division between the most deprived areas of England compared to the least deprived when it comes to access to childcare.

Small child playing with brightly coloured bricks on the floor in a childcare setting


More than 1.5 million children in England are living in ​childcare deserts”, where there are more than three children for every early years place, according to a new report from the New Economics Foundation and The Social Guarantee.

Researchers found that 44% of children in England aged 0 – 5 lived in childcare deserts, which are more likely to be found in the most deprived local authorities. The study includes a graph showing over 80% of the most deprived local authorities in England are described as early childhood education and care deserts, compared to less than 5% of the least deprived 20% of local authorities.

The report, A Fair Start for All, comes just months before the government’s expansion of free hours kicks in, amid concerns that childcare providers won’t be able to meet demand. Many parents cannot access ‘free childcare’ for three and four year olds because, to be eligible, both parents [or a single parent] need to be working at least 16 hours a week on or above the minimum wage.

The report comes as the National Day Nurseries Association says its analysis of Ofsted statistics shows that there are 502 fewer nurseries and pre-schools between September 2022 and August 2023, which it says “is putting serious pressure on the remaining early education and care providers ahead of the expected expansion of funded places in April”.

The report’s author and Head of Social Policy at the New Economics Foundation, Tom Pollard, said: “It is no coincidence that childcare deserts show up in the poorest areas of England, when access to our early years education system is based on parents’ working status rather than children’s need. By keeping the poorest parents locked out from the full benefits of early years education, the government risks locking their children into a lifetime of poverty.

“The government’s plan to expand its childcare offer means that by the end of next year the state will be funding 80% of provision in England, making it a de facto public service. It would be inconceivable not to use that opportunity to deliver for the children who stand to benefit the most, and to help level up across our country.”

The report shows that for every pound that the government borrows and invests in early years education for children from low-income households, the Treasury receives £2.07 back in tax revenue. Conversely, it loses 33p for every pound it invests in children from high income households.

“The government has the opportunity here to do something truly transformative, by making early years education a universal basic service,” said Pollard.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said years of underfunding of ‘free’ childcare places was to blame for the situation providers find themselves in, with those in the most deprived areas facing the biggest financial challenges and an increase in closures. He added that the situation is likely to get worse when the expansion plans take effect.

He said: “There is a wealth of research showing that children from economically poorer backgrounds benefit the most from early education and care, and yet, as the New Economics Foundation’s report highlights, these are the very children who are the most likely to be frozen out of accessing places.

“Let’s be clear: access to early years places should never be dependent on a family’s income or financial circumstances. The fact that those who would gain the most from access to early education and care are the most likely to lose out is entirely unacceptable.”

The Early Years Alliance has also expressed concern at reports of a hike in the national minimum wage, forecast to be part of the Autumn Statement. It is reported that the minimum wage will increase from £10.42 to £11.44, and extend to 21- and 22-year-olds, in April 2024. Leitch said this would be ‘the final nail in the coffin’ for early years without adequate funding to cover the cost for providers. The National Day Nurseries Association said that unless the Government increases the funding rates for all children to include the hike in minimum wages, its childcare expansion policy would be “completely undeliverable”.

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