Childcare deserts more likely in more deprived areas

New figures from the ONS reinforce earlier research showing falling access to childcare in deprived areas is widening inequality.

A birds eye view of Eight children lying on a brightly coloured play mat, huddled together and face to face


Statistics released by the Office for National Statistics yesterday show what many early years experts already knew: that areas with lower levels of access to childcare were generally more likely to have lower disposable household incomes, on average, and a higher proportion of children living in poverty. The ONS says affluent areas like St Albans and Cambridge have the highest levels of childcare access whereas areas such as Walsall, Great Yarmouth, Sunderland and Torridge in Devon have the lowest.

There has been a lot of talk of late about ‘childcare deserts’. A report by the New Economics Foundation and the Social Guarantee last year, for instance, found 44% of children in England aged 0 – 5 lived in childcare deserts, which were more likely to be found in the most deprived local authorities. The study included 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.

Without access to childcare parents – and it is still predominantly mothers who will be affected, in particular, single mums – will find it more difficult to find work and to climb out of poverty. With concerns that the extension of ‘free’ childcare could make things worse by forcing more providers to the wall because existing ‘free’ childcare is often underfunded, things could be set to get worse. Moreover, the alternatives to traditional providers, such as childcare platforms, are often concentrated in the wealthier areas.

Another issue is the impact on children’s development because childcare is not just about babysitting while parents work. It is about early years education and we know that many children are arriving at school already some way behind those who have had access to early years education. They find it hard to catch up and often remain behind throughout their education. ‘Free’ childcare, however, is only available to working parents who do work more than 16 hours at the national minimum wage so it excludes many parents.

The TUC says simply that “every child should have access to good childcare and early education”. Childcare experts have called the ONS figures worrying. Neil Leitch from the Early Years Alliance said: “With the majority of government schemes currently focused on supporting working families, unless we see an urgent shift in early years policy focus, there is a real danger of a whole generation of children from more disadvantaged backgrounds being left behind – despite the wealth of research showing that they are the children likely to benefit the most from access to a quality early education.”

Purnima Tanuku, Chief Executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), echoes that, saying “these statistics paint a troubling picture that echoes the concerns we have been sharing about funded places. They show that those children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have the most to gain from high quality early education and care, tend to be the least likely to have access to those places”.

NDNA’s research has found that nurseries are most likely to close in areas of deprivation because there tends to be a larger proportion of government-funded hours compared to parent-paid hours in childcare settings. Currently 83% of nurseries make a loss on funded places and so a greater reliance on funded places puts them at greater risk, says the NDNA. They are calling for the Government to bring the early years pupil premium in line with the rates paid at primary school. It’s time for a big rethink on early years to ensure that education is about closing equality gaps, not widening them.

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