A key plan to expand free childcare will “absolutely guarantee” more crèches to close, staff to leave and places to fall if there is no substantial increase in funding to support it, Jeremy Hunt has warned.
A striking promise for a vast expansion of free childcare provision was a top giveaway in the chancellor’s budget last week. However, while childcare providers have received extra help for parents, nurseries across England, speaking to the ObserverHe said the plan risked having a “catastrophic” impact on the sector without a review of core funding.
“This will be the end of nurseries,” said Mel Hart, owner of Albion House Nursery and Old School Nursery in Grantham, Lincolnshire. “We are already underfunded at approximately £2.50 per hour, per child for three and four year olds. More than 5,000 day care centers are said to have closed last year. If more are struggling financially, more will also go out of business. Then there will be nowhere for the children to go so that the parents can go to work.”
The budget plan will include 30 hours a week of free child care for all children ages nine months to four years, although its introduction will be phased. Currently, parents of three- and four-year-olds can claim 15 or 30 hours of free child care, depending on their circumstances.
Hunt promised increased free-hours funding of £204m from September, eventually rising to £288m next year. However, it is well below independent estimates of the costs faced by nurseries and full details of the financing have not been disclosed.
The system is now effectively reliant on fees paid by the parents of the younger children which make up for the underfunding of the “free” hours given to the older ones. But under Hunt’s plan, expanding free hours would prevent that from happening.
Purnima Tanuku, executive director of the National Association of Day Care Centers, said: “The more children funded [nurseries] they are taking, the more losses they are making. On average, providers lose £2.20-2.30 per child, per hour. That’s the gap right now. Unless proper funding follows, all we are doing is exacerbating the problem.”
Jo Morris of Playsteps nursery in Swindon, Wiltshire, said that under current funding levels, there was a difference of £87,700 a year between the costs of caring for the 57 off-hours children and the state funding provided. “We’ve had to cross-subsidize parents who do pay,” she said. “When access to free hours is expanded, you can imagine the losses to us and other day care centers and childminders could be catastrophic.”
Olivia Foley, of Hungry Caterpillar nurseries, most of which are in London, said it was already difficult to fill the vacancies as the work was hard and wages were already higher elsewhere, even before they were cut. Expenses.
“We have so many vacancies; we have nurseries where we reduce registration to about 60% because we just can’t get the staff,” she said. “The idea that we’re going to be able to provide all these additional places, unless there’s a workforce development plan, there just won’t be the staff to deliver it.”
Caroline Nutting of Little Acorns preschool in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, said: “We would have to make redundancies, understaff and high-level care and provision would end up taking a hit.”
Sarah Jacomb, owner of the Toybox nursery in East Grinstead, West Sussex, said the idea of free hours “is simply not true and very misleading.” She backed helping parents, but added: “Parents now expect free childcare and don’t realize the fact that daycare centers are going to have to close the gap between what the government will pay them and what it actually costs them.”
Insiders are now demanding meetings with the chancellor and education secretary Gillian Keegan to seek assurances that there will be a big increase in funding for free childcare hours. The change means the state now effectively oversees the financial viability of vast swaths of the sector.
Neil Leitch, director of the Early Years Alliance education charity, said: “The funding levels and 30-hour expansion plans announced in the budget show that the government has underestimated the severity of the problems facing the early years sector. childhood. We urge Treasury to enter into discussions with us so that, together, we can determine how these plans will work in practice.”
Department sources said the childcare offer was the biggest single investment in England and that, by 2027-28, it would spend more than £8bn each year on free hours and early education.
Keegan said in Funny last week: “We are paying more to the suppliers so, logically, because they were asking for that, they could pay people. We think they’ll make sure it’s attractive.”