Almost 90% of English councils fear significant rise in nursery closures

A Local Government Association survey casts further doubts over the government’s pledge to offer more free childcare places.

Nursery worker with children

 

Almost nine in ten councils in England are concerned that there will be a significant rise in nursery closures this year, casting further doubts over the government’s pledge to offer more free childcare places, new research shows today. 

The Local Government Association (LGA) survey also found that nearly half (44%) of councils had already seen an increase in nurseries closing in 2022, compared to the year before.

Rishi Sunak’s government announced a huge expansion of its free childcare scheme earlier this year, following pressure from employers, campaigners, MPs, and parents. The planned expansion, which would give working parents 30 hours of childcare once their child is nine months’ old, is set to be introduced in stages from next spring.

But childcare providers have raised serious concerns about the pledge, given England’s shortages of childcare places and staff, as well as the fact that the government has earmarked far less funding for the scheme than economists say is needed.

“The government’s extension of free childcare is a positive step towards helping working parents,” Louise Gittins, who chairs the LGA’s children and young people board, said in a statement.

“However, we have serious concerns about the ability of local areas to secure nursery places…Nurseries and childcare providers are already under massive pressure, grappling with severe financial and workforce challenges, which has seen staff numbers depleted and an acceleration in places closing.”

Nursery closures in England rose by 50% in 2022-23 compared to the previous year, according to data from the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) released last week.

‘Nurseries need meaningful support now’

Nurseries and other early-years providers are struggling partly because the government does not give them enough funding to carry out its existing free childcare schemes, which mostly apply to three- and four-year-olds. Some providers have to charge parents top-up fees for what should be free hours, in order to stay afloat.

The government’s spring budget earmarked £4.2bn for its free childcare expansion in 2025-26, which is when the proposed set-up would be fully in place, as well as £240m to boost funding for its existing schemes in 2023-24. But an analysis by the Women’s Budget Group has found that £9.4bn is needed for the expansion and £1.8bn is needed for the existing schemes.

Childcare providers are also under strain due to staff shortages, with low wages often deterring people from the profession. The LGA report found that staff shortages were more acute in poorer areas, where families often need childcare support the most.

“For years we have been showing how nurseries are facing increasing pressures, due to spiralling costs and chronic underfunding. Now councils are joining providers and parents in showing real concern for the viability of future expansion, if we don’t fix the current system,” Purnima Tanuku, the NDNA’s chief executive, said in response to the report. 

The opposition Labour party is yet to fully unveil its proposals for childcare, which is likely to be a key topic in the run-up to next year’s general election. Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said in an a Guardian interview this week that she wanted to see more “graduate-led nurseries” and more training for childminders, in order to improve the quality of childcare. 

Labour has also previously said it would provide free breakfast clubs for all primary school children, which would be a major boost for working parents who often need ‘wraparound’ care for school-aged children.

The LGA is calling for councils to have stronger powers around early-years childcare provision, in order to ensure that spaces are available across all neighbourhoods, as well as a recruitment drive to find more workers.  

These powers would include the ability to withhold free-hours funding if a childcare provider wants to open a setting in an area that is already well-served. This could help to prevent clusters of settings in more affluent areas and “childcare deserts” in disadvantaged areas.



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