Thousands of nurseries have shut their doors amid a staffing crisis, leaving Jeremy Hunt’s flagship Budget pledge to expand free childcare for British families “doomed to failure”, The Independent has been told.
New figures from school inspectors Ofsted show that 3,320 of the 62,300 nurseries and childminders for under-fives in England have shut their doors in the past year alone, leaving 17,800 fewer childcare places available.
At the time of the Budget announcement in March, Hunt pledged the sector would be given help to ready itself for the number of places needed to meet demand – but in the months since thousands of nurseries have closed amid a spiralling cost of living crisis and lack of government support.
Experts say the decline means the government’s plan to offer 30 hours of free childcare for under-fives from 2025 will be impossible to implement as they struggle to recruit and retain workers.
The news leaves families banking on the provision in limbo, not knowing whether they can afford soaring childcare fees which are north of £2,000 a month for a full-time place in some areas.
It comes just days after Mr Hunt doubled down on his commitment to start the first part of the rollout – due to begin in April – in his autumn statement.
The Independent can also reveal:
- The number of nurseries and early years services for under fives has plummeted from 84,970 in 2015/2016 to 63,207 in 2022/2023
- Almost 100,000 extra workers are needed to fulfil Mr Hunt’s pledge, according to research by The University of Leeds and the Early Education and Childcare Coalition
- 180,000 additional places will be needed by the end of 2025 for the rollout to work
This week, the government announced £400m of extra funding for childcare places but providers remain concerned about the lack of trained staff to fill the roles.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, told The Independent it was “frankly unbelievable” that the government wants to press ahead with the plan at the most challenging time for the sector in decades.
Labour said childcare providers had been “pushed to breaking point” under Conservative rule with cost of living rising and problems in recruitment.
With the shortage of childcare places, mother-of-one Sophie Barnett told The Independent she will be forced to drive 60 miles a day in a two-hour round trip from spring next year due to a lack of services in her area.
Ms Barnett, 31, who lives in Norfolk and is currently on maternity leave, told The Independent the journey feels like “wasted time” that could spent with her son.
Ms Barnett, who works in education and events, added: “Sadly, due to local council politics, the local nursery – two miles from where I live and work – closed whilst I was still pregnant.
“Taking into account nursery costs, and fuel costs, I will be going back to work for about £30 a week. What is the point? But I love my job, value adult time and socialisation, and want to progress in my career.”
Mr Leitch warned the Tories’ “expansion plans are doomed to fail unless the government properly listens to and engages with the sector”. He said it would be a “complete waste of time and money” if they failed to address the shortages before the rollout begins.
He said decades of underfunding meant services have been forced to close and he argued the new policy would lead to more providers closing.
“We will have parents knocking on our doors saying I want this entitlement and we won’t have the staff to deliver it,” he added.
Mr Leitch, whose organisation represents nurseries, pre-schools and registered childminders among others, said many of their nurseries have waiting lists as they can’t find staff.
The Confederation of British Industry has estimated implementing the government’s expanded childcare plans will cost £8.9bn rather than the £4bn ministers have allocated to fund the increase in places – with this including staffing costs, bills, rent, and resources.
Helen Hayes, Labour’s shadow children and early years minister, said: “Childcare providers have been pushed to breaking point under the Conservatives, stuck with soaring costs and struggling to recruit the skilled staff they need.”
Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) has previously found the UK had one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world.
Research by the New Economics Foundation and The Social Guarantee shows almost half of children under five are now living in “childcare deserts” – with more than 1.5 million children in England residing in parts of the country where there are more than three children for every early year’s space.
Polling by campaign group Pregnant then Screwed found that around a quarter of parents face waiting lists of at least 10 months to get their children enrolled in nursery.
Sally Pearce, who helps run two nurseries in Sheffield, said both services were struggling with staff recruitment and retention. She said a lack of funding made it difficult to pay salaries.
“We advertise posts and we get hardly any applications or those people who apply have not got the required qualifications,” she added. “Sometimes we can put an advert up twice and nobody suitable applies.”
Ms Pearce, a professor at Sheffield Hallam who specialises in early years care, said the right childcare support for children and parents at this stage has benefits which stretch into adulthood but warned the sector is in “crisis”.
“People are leaving because they can earn higher salaries with less responsibility and less pressure. Sometimes staff become burnt out,” she said.
Lauren Fabianski, head of campaigns and communications at Pregnant then Screwed, said early years staff were drastically underpaid, with most on the minimum wage. She added: “With the rise in the cost of living many providers are struggling to keep their lights on, and they are closing their doors as a result.
“We are hearing from parents who are at their wit’s end trying to find and afford childcare that enables them to work. Families are having to downsize to pay the bills, move house to find nurseries with availability or commute for hours to make it all work.”
Ellen Broome, of Coram Family and Childcare, said the government’s plan to expand free childcare hours would only increase the pressure on an already stretched sector, “with the potential for disadvantaged children being hit the hardest”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said they are “rolling out the single biggest investment in childcare in England’s history, and are confident in the strength of our childcare market to deliver 30 free hours of childcare for working parents from nine-months-old up to when they start school”.
The representative added: “The findings of this survey differ markedly from our own work which shows the early years workforce is stable. But we know there is more to do – which is why we are launching a new national recruitment campaign in the new year, and an accelerated apprenticeship route into the sector to help recruit new staff.”