‘This will be the end of childcare’: England’s preschools warn of closure amid plan to expand free childcare | child education

A key plan to expand free childcare will “absolutely guarantee” more daycare closures, staff outflows and a drop in vacancies if there isn’t a substantial increase in funding behind it, warned Jeremy Hunt.

An enticing pledge for a huge expansion of free childcare provision was the top offer in the chancellor’s budget last week. However, while childcare providers have been given extra help for parents, daycare centers across England, speaking to the Observersaid the plan risks having a “catastrophic” impact on the sector without a central funding review.

“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 by approximately £2.50 per hour per child for three and four year olds. More than 5,000 kindergartens were closed last year. If more people are struggling financially, more will also close. Then there will be no place for the kids to go so the parents can work.”

The budget plan calls for 30 hours a week of free day care for all children aged nine months to four years, although its introduction will be staggered. Currently, parents of three- and four-year-olds can claim 15 or 30 hours of free childcare, depending on the circumstances.

Hunt has pledged an increase in free hours funding of £204m from September, rising to £288m next year. However, it is well below independent estimates of the costs that nurseries face, and full funding details have not been disclosed.

The system now relies effectively on fees paid by parents of younger children, compensating for the underfunding of “free” hours given to elders. But according to Hunt’s plan, expanding free hours would prevent that from happening.

Purnima Tanuku, executive director of the National Day Nurseries Association, said: “The more children funded [nurseries] are taking, the more losses they are taking. On average, providers lose £2.20-2.30 per child per hour. That’s the gap at the moment. Unless there is adequate funding, all we are doing is exacerbating the problem.”

Olivia Foley of Hungry Caterpillar Nurseries said she is keeping records at about 60% because she can’t get enough staff.

Jo Morris, from Playsteps nursery in Swindon, Wiltshire, said that under funding levels now, there was an £87,700 a year gap between the costs of caring for the 57 children in spare time and the state funding provided. “We had to be cross-subsidized by paying parents,” she said. “When access to free time is expanded, you can imagine the losses for us and other day care centers and nannies could be catastrophic.”

Olivia Foley of Hungry Caterpillar Nurseries, most of which are in London, said it was already difficult to fill vacancies as the work was hard and wages were already higher elsewhere – even before any further tightening in spending.

“We have so many openings; we have day care centers where we’re holding enrollment at about 60% because we just can’t get staffed,” 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 people to deliver it.”

Caroline Nutting, from Little Acorns preschool in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, said: “We would have to make redundancies, have fewer staff and the high standard of care and provision would suffer.”

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Sarah Jacomb, owner of Toybox nursery in East Grinstead, West Sussex, said the idea of ​​free hours was “simply not true and very misleading”. She supported helping parents, but added: “Parents now expect free childcare and ignore the fact that childcare will somehow have to bridge the gap between what the government will pay for and what it will actually cost them.”

Insiders are now demanding meetings with the chancellor and education secretary, Gillian Keegan, to seek assurances that there would be a big increase in funding for free childcare hours. The move means the state is now effectively overseeing the financial viability of vast swathes of the sector.

Neil Leitch, head of charitable education at the Early Years Alliance, said: “The funding levels and 30-hour expansion plans announced in the budget show that the government has underestimated the gravity of the problems facing the early years sector. We ask the Treasury to engage in discussions with us so that together we can figure out how these plans will work in practice.”

Department sources said providing child care was the biggest single investment in England ever and that, by 2027-28, it would spend more than £8 billion every year on free hours and early childhood education.

Keegan said in thank you last week: “We are paying providers more, so logically, because they were asking for this, they could pay people. We think they’re going to make sure it’s attractive.”

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