“The staff are lovely, the location is beautiful and the children have access to a calm and nurturing environment,” says one review of the pre-school in southern England. Yet the nursery in the village of Alfriston, East Sussex, shut its doors for the last time on Friday, nearly half a century after it was launched by residents.
Like other social infrastructure in England, childcare provision is suffering from a debilitating mix of under-investment, rising costs, shortages of qualified staff and low morale. After a drawn-out battle for survival the nursery at Alfriston simply could not make the numbers add up.
“We have managed to scrape by calling in favours from people who used to work here to help out with temporary cover,” said Tracy Friend, a working mother on the nursery’s governing committee. But she explained that a failure to attract new recruits meant they were no longer able to meet government rules on child to staff ratios.
Alfriston pre-school joins nearly 400 nurseries across England to have folded since August 2020, from a total of 27,610, according to the education regulator Ofsted: a small local drama that will have a big impact on working parents for whom there are limited alternatives nearby.
But the overall number of childcare providers in England has dropped by more than 11 per cent in the two years to June.
The bulk of the decline is because of a sharp fall in the number of registered childminders. Many felt undervalued and have been lured by higher wages stacking shelves and manning tills, said Liz Bayram, who heads Pacey, the Professional Association for Childminders and Early Years.
Frustration is growing among parents as their choices shrink and nurseries become more expensive, making what is already the second most costly childcare system in the world, according to the OECD, even more prohibitive.
On Saturday, thousands of mothers will converge on cities around England in a Halloween-themed “march of the mummies” to highlight what the organisers, campaigning group Pregnant then Screwed, describe as “horrific treatment” of mums.
“It makes no sense. If you want us to work so that we can financially contribute to both our family and the economy, then give us the social infrastructure to be able to do just that,” said Joeli Brearley, founder and chief executive of the charity.
The government has pledged to improve access to affordable childcare and is exploring “a wide range of options”. Among reforms it has floated are to increase child to staff ratios and to provide state subsidies directly to parents rather than to providers.
“Improving the cost, choice and availability of childcare for working parents is a key priority for this government,” the department for education said.
Thus far, however, its proposals have not been greeted with much enthusiasm in the sector. Increasing staff to child ratios is the most controversial.
That might have solved the immediate problem for Alfriston, where the nursery failed to find qualified replacements for employees who left earlier this year.
But it would risk compounding the recruitment crisis in the sector, placing additional stress on staff looking after greater numbers of toddlers and potentially driving more out of the profession into higher paid, less demanding work.
“You have people at the bottom of the pile when it comes to earnings, coming out of a pandemic stressed and exhausted, who were treated as babysitters with no support funding when ill. It’s a work force that is vulnerable,” said Neil Leitch, who runs the Early Years Alliance, the largest early years membership organisation in England.
The group spent two and a half years battling with freedom of information requests to show that government has under-financed the sector since 2017 by holding back £1.7bn of funding needed each year to cover the means-tested subsidy it provides to parents. This allows most parents 30 hours of free childcare for 3 to 4-year-olds, and 15 hours for 2-year-olds.
To make up for shortfalls nurseries charge more. “[The government] know they shortchange the sector. They know parents are having to pay,” said Leitch, who predicted that without greater support, nursery closures will accelerate in months to come.
The department for education said it had spent “more than £4bn in each of the past five years to support families with the cost of childcare” and plans now to review the formula used to determine funding annually.
Meanwhile, the proposal to put funding directly into the hands of parents would disproportionately hit nurseries in the most deprived areas, where the majority of children’s hours are paid for by the state, said nursery owners.
Parents might have more choice over what kind of childcare to pay for. But Andrew Howarth, who runs a chain of nurseries in Manchester, said they might also use the money to meet other rising costs, to the detriminent of nurseries in their communities.
Howarth suggested government could help more by eliminating the business rates and VAT on supplies paid by nurseries, and by targeting state subsidies for childcare more strategically towards parents on low incomes.
Muhammad Raza, who is in charge of business development at the family-owned Daffodils chain of nurseries in Croydon, south of London, said expansion plans were on hold because of shrinking margins.
He said to maintain staff either they needed to be paid more — he suggested three to four pounds above the minimum wage per hour — or nurseries would need to bring sponsored workers in from abroad.
“It’s not an easy job and yet a store assistant at Aldi gets paid more,” he said, adding: “Ultimately if parents can’t send their children to nursery, it impacts the whole country’s output. There will be less people able to work because everyone puts their children first.”