Many councils say local nurseries and childminders have had to cut opening hours or offer fewer funded places, Coram Family and Childcare research shows.
Almost half of councils say that some local childcare providers have had to reduce their opening hours, new data has shown, as nurseries, pre-schools and childminders struggle to make ends meet
Coram Family and Childcare, a charity, has surveyed councils in Britain for its upcoming annual report on the state of childcare, which will be released in March. Preliminary findings out today show how childcare providers are continuing to struggle with low government investment, rising prices, and staff shortages.
Nearly half of councils (44%) reported that some or many providers have reduced their opening hours, while a similar proportion (43%) said some or many providers had reduced the number of funded places they could provide.
The UK’s patchy and expensive childcare system has increasingly been under the spotlight over the past year, as the cost-of-living crisis makes it ever harder for families to pay high fees and for providers to balance the books. Hundreds of providers have closed down in recent years, with particularly high numbers of childminders leaving the sector. Some data also shows high numbers of nursery closures last summer.
As a result, childcare looks set to be a battleground in next year’s general election. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak came under fire last month for not announcing any childcare reforms since taking office last autumn, while the opposition Labour party says it would guarantee childcare from the age of nine months to 11 years, although its plans are not yet fully costed.
A parliamentary committee is also currently looking into childcare, with Coram and other expert groups due to make submissions tomorrow.
“Pressures on the childcare sector mean that more families are at risk of not being able to find the childcare that they rely on,” Megan Jarvie, head of Coram Family and Childcare, said in a statement. “We urge the government to make sure that childcare and children’s life chances are at the very heart of their plans to support families through the cost-of-living crisis.”
In total, 131 out of 205 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales responded to the charity’s annual survey about the cost and availability of childcare in their area.
Providers, campaigners, and families have long called on the government to invest more in childcare – the UK’s public spending on this sector lags that of many other developed countries. The CBI, an influential body that represents around 190,000 businesses, also said last week that a lack of childcare reform was holding back the economy by preventing parents from working, at a time when the UK faces serious labour shortages.
The childcare sector itself is in the grip of worker shortages, often because cash-strapped providers can only afford to pay their staff minimum wage. Coram’s preliminary data showed that 71% of councils said their local providers were finding it “very difficult” to recruit staff with the required qualifications and experience.
Coram also said it was particularly concerned by the high numbers of providers saying they had had to reduce their funded places, which offer heavily-subsidised or free hours of childcare that often benefit low-income families. Good early-years education has been shown to help children prepare for school, and to narrow the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.
Childcare providers have long said that the government funding provided for such places does not cover the full cost of care, leaving them to either absorb losses or charge families top-up fees for what should be free hours.