Early years education in the UK: Falling availability and rising prices

A new report from Coram Family and Childcare shows the extent of the lack of early years places, particularly in certain areas of the country as the Government prepares to roll out an expansion of the sector.

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

 

Just days away from the first phase of major expansion to childcare support, new research shows the extent of the childcare availability problems across England and concerns about the ability of providers to deliver on the Government’s plans, particularly the latter phases of the roll-out.

Coram Family and Childcare’s 23rd annual Childcare Survey shows only a third (34%) of English councils report sufficient childcare for parents working full-time, a fall of 14% on 2023, and just over one in three (35%) report enough childcare for children under two, down by 14% on last year.

The findings show that it is the most disadvantaged children who are missing out, with just 6% of councils reporting sufficient childcare for children with disabilities, a decrease of 12% on 2023. There are also continued decreases in the availability of childcare across all other areas of provision measured in the survey, including for parents working atypical hours (down by 7% on 2023) and families in rural areas (down by 14% on 2023).

In some areas the fall is more of a landslide, with sufficiency of childcare for families in rural areas plummeting in Yorkshire and Humberside from 60% last year to just 7% this year. Similarly, the proportion of local authorities reporting enough childcare for families in rural areas in the North East has fallen from 75% to 17%. The East Midlands is the only region to report an increase, rather than a decrease, in sufficiency of childcare for families in rural areas.

The East of England generally reported the least provision (from 18% for disadvantaged two year olds to 55% for the 30 hours for three and four year olds) for all categories of early years childcare and the North East generally reported the high levels of provision across the same categories (67% to 83%). However, the South West has South West just 21% coverage for two year olds and only 14% for the 30 hours for three and four year olds.

Costs

Families across Britain are also grappling with very high childcare costs, with a part-time nursery place (25 hours per week) for a child under two now costing an average of £158 per week, a 7% increase on 2023. The most expensive area in the country is inner London, where parents pay an average of £218 per week for one part-time nursery place.

The report also reveals councils’ concerns over the delivery of the expansion to free early education entitlements, which start from April, and the further impact on the availability of childcare places. While 63% of councils in England are ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ that there will be enough places to meet demand for the first wave of expansion (15 free hours for two-year-olds), just 28% say the same about the expansion from September 2024 (15 free hours from nine months), and this falls to just 12% for the September 2025 expansion (30 hours from nine months).

In addition, the vast majority (90%) of councils identify labour shortages as a ‘barrier’ to successful delivery of the 30 hours free entitlements in 2025.  The report shows similar staffing problems and rising costs for childcare providers in Scotland and Wales.

Additional costs

The report also charts the extent to which additional costs are charged to parents. While the majority of local authorities are unclear about the extent to which providers in their area make additional charges, a third of those who are clear said that all or almost all providers have additional charges for three- and four-year-olds claiming both the 30 hour and 15 hour entitlements. 91% said half or more providers make additional charges.

In addition it covers school-age childcare and finds the average price of an after school club for a week is £69.14 across Great Britain, or £2,697 a year during term time (39 weeks). The average price of a
childminder to 6pm for a week is £75.87 across Great Britain, or £2,959 a year during term time.

Recommendations

Ellen Broomé, Managing Director of Coram Family and Childcare, said: Our findings – with higher costs and dramatic drops in availability of childcare places – are concerning at this crucial time, showing the scale of challenge and the very real risks around [the expansion] policy not living up to parents’ expectations. Unless this policy is properly funded and supported, it could have the opposite effect, with families unable to access or afford the childcare they need and the most disadvantaged children set to miss out.”

She called on the Government to work closely with local authorities and childcare providers to make sure they are supported to deliver for families. And she said that all political parties need to commit to childcare reform.

The report’s short-term recommendations include the re-allocation of the underspend from Tax-Free Childcare to other parts of the childcare system, extending the current 30 hours funded early education entitlements to parents in training or education, and migrant parents, increasing funding for children with SEND and simplifying the funding application process to ensure those with the greatest need are not excluded from vital early education opportunities and the appointment of a dedicated Chief Early Years Officer who can advocate for the profession at the heart of Government. Longer term goals include the creation of an early years workforce strategy, a funding settlement that guarantees the true cost of provision, streamlining the childcare offer to families and the introduction of a right to early education.

Reaction

Providers reacted with dismay to the figures in the report. Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, said: With just a fortnight to go until the roll-out of the extended entitlement offer, this report raises serious questions about whether the expansion is even close to being workable in practice over the long term…To say time is running out is an understatement. It is absolutely critical that government wakes up to the reality of the situation and takes the urgent action needed to support early years providers – namely, adequate funding and a clear workforce strategy that focuses on retention as well as recruitment. Ministers chose to make a big promise to families; it’s up to them to ensure the sector is able to deliver on it.”

The National Day Nurseries Association echoed the fears, saying: “The Budget was an opportunity to provide immediate support to the sector but the much needed additional funding will not arrive until 2025. This worrying report shows that families, providers and councils are facing immediate challenges ahead of April’s expansion.”



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