The nursery closures pose a risk to the government’s commitment to free childcare, warns the sector

Last year, England witnessed a decline of over 400 nurseries, as the sector attributed this to “chronic underfunding” and increasing expenses.

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) expressed concerns regarding the figures, highlighting the potential shortage of available slots to fulfill the pledged expansion of free childcare.

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) urged the government to view the data as a “wake-up call.” In response, the government stated its plans to enhance the payments made 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 leading up to the end of March. Moreover, there was an overall reduction of 3,512 available childcare places.

The total number of childcare places, including childminders, experienced a decline of 24,521. An earlier report this year highlighted the existing scarcity of nursery places, with nearly half of the areas lacking sufficient available spaces for children under two, and a third of areas facing a shortage of space for three and four-year-olds.

During the March Budget, the government disclosed plans to extend the existing scheme, which provides 30 free hours of childcare per week to three and four-year-olds in England, to also include coverage for younger children.

The implementation of the changes will occur gradually, commencing with eligible parents receiving 15 hours of free childcare per week starting from April of next year.

Starting from September 2024, children between nine months and two years who meet the eligibility criteria will receive 15 hours of free childcare. Additionally, from September 2025, eligible children between nine months and three years will be entitled to 30 hours of free childcare.

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Despite the government’s provision of free childcare hours, nurseries argue that the remuneration they receive fails to cover their expenses.

As stated in the Budget, the government announced an increase in the hourly rate for funded places for two-year-olds by 30% from the current national average rate. For three and four-year-olds, the hourly rate will experience a 4% rise.

Jonathan Broadbery, the Director of Policy and Communications at the NDNA, expressed concerns stating, “The funding rate increase scheduled for September will likely come too late for numerous nurseries, leading to disruptions in children’s care and education.”

The NDNA described the situation as “devastating,” highlighting that nurseries are additionally burdened by rising costs, such as staff wages, food expenses, and business rates.

Jo Morris, the owner of two nurseries in Swindon, Wiltshire, reported a significant increase of approximately 20% in costs for items like food, nappies, and cleaning supplies over the past year. Moreover, she mentioned that her nurseries had experienced elevated staffing expenses due to the minimum wage hikes.

Despite receiving government funding for free childcare hours, Jo Morris stated that it did not adequately cover the expenses associated with providing these services. As a result, she found it necessary to charge additional fees for children who were not eligible for the free childcare offer.

Ms. Morris expressed concerns about the feasibility of expanding free hours to more children, noting that it would pose additional challenges for her nurseries.

Ms. Morris expressed concerns about the feasibility of expanding free hours to more children, noting that it would pose additional challenges for her nurseries.

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Responding to the concerns raised, a spokeswoman from the Department for Education acknowledged the existence of local challenges regarding the availability of childcare places. However, she asserted that the overall situation was “broadly positive,” citing a mere 2% decrease in the number of childcare places last year.

The spokeswoman expressed confidence in the resilience of the childcare market and the government’s commitment to providing support for working parents with children aged nine months and above, through the provision of free 30 hours of childcare.

Source : bbc.com

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