The childcare sector warns that nursery closures pose a threat to the government’s free childcare pledge

Last year, the nursery count in England decreased by over 400, attributed to “chronic underfunding” and increasing costs, according to the sector.

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) expressed concerns over the figures, raising “serious questions” about the availability of sufficient places to fulfill the commitment of expanding free childcare.

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) emphasized that the data should serve as a “wake-up call” for the government. In response, the government stated its plans to increase the amount paid to childcare providers.

According to the latest figures from Ofsted, the number of nurseries and pre-schools in England decreased from 27,291 to 26,884 in the year ending in March. Additionally, there were 3,512 fewer places overall.

Childcare places, including childminders, saw a decrease of 24,521 in total. This further exacerbates the existing shortage of nursery places, with nearly half of the areas lacking sufficient spaces for children under two and a third facing a shortage of space for three and four-year-olds, as reported earlier this year.

The government announced in the March Budget that the current scheme, which provides 30 free hours of childcare per week for three and four-year-olds in England, would be expanded to include younger children.

Starting from April next year, eligible parents will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare per week, with the changes being gradually implemented.

Starting September 2024, children aged between nine months and two years will be eligible for 15 hours of childcare, and from September 2025, children aged between nine months and three years will qualify for 30 hours.

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However, nurseries argue that the government’s payment for free childcare hours does not sufficiently cover their expenses.

The government’s Budget included a 30% increase in the hourly rate for funded places for two-year-olds, surpassing the current national average rate.

Additionally, the rate for three and four-year-olds will see a 4% rise.

According to Jonathan Broadbery, director of policy and communications at the NDNA, the increase in funding rates scheduled for September will come too late for many nurseries, leading to disruptions in children’s care and education.

The NDNA described the situation as “devastating,” pointing out that nurseries are dealing with rising costs, including staff wages, food expenses, and business rates.

According to Jo Morris, owner of two nurseries in Swindon, Wiltshire, her expenses for essentials like food, nappies, and cleaning supplies have surged by approximately 20% in the past year. Additionally, she noted that staffing costs have increased due to the rise in the minimum wage.

Despite receiving government funding for free childcare hours, Jo Morris expressed that it is insufficient to cover the cost of providing these services. Consequently, she stated that she had to charge more for children who were not eligible for the free childcare offer.

Ms. Morris expressed concern about the feasibility of expanding free hours to more children, stating that it would pose additional challenges. She emphasized the need for government funding to adequately cover the cost of delivering free hours, as nurseries like hers may not be able to sustain themselves otherwise.

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