Early years providers warn of recruitment and funding crisis

Thousands of childminders, nurseries and pre-schools are shutting their doors, and many more will follow, if the next government does not take early years education seriously, providers have warned.

In an exclusive survey by ITV News Anglia, more than 160 providers have revealed the daily struggles they face with funding and recruitment.

One nursery manager said: "The workforce are leaving in droves, especially experienced and qualified managers", while another said: "I hate having to pay my staff minimum wage for the stressful work that is involved in looking after young children. It can feel like a thankless job."

Others said they simply could not go on and would soon be closing for good.

In fact, in the four years from September 2019 to December 2023, Ofsted figures show nearly 4,000 providers left the sector in the Anglia region, replaced by around 2,200 joining it.

Soon to add to those statistics will be Springboard nursery in Saxlingham Nethergate, near Norwich.

After more than 30 years, owner Julie Brighton has made the decision to close because she cannot find enough staff.

"I've had to turn families away," she said. "It's gut-wrenching really."

Ms Brighton, who already has to close on a Thursday afternoon because of a lack of staff, said one of the major issues putting people off joining the early years sector was the low pay.

"If you're going to advertise for a job and you're offering minimum wage, for a challenging job, and people can go to a supermarket and earn £15 or £16 an hour, it's a no-brainer really," she said.

"It's such a shame because early years is such an important part of a child's life."

But many providers said they had no choice but to pay minimum wage because the government funding they received did not stretch far enough.

Check out our survey responses in detail

Of those we spoke to, 85% said the amount they got did not cover the cost of a place - with the shortfall ranging from a few pence per hour, per child, to more than £5 per hour, per child.

Asked if their businesses were financially viable at the moment, 36% said yes, 34% said no, and the remainder were unsure.

At the moment, working parents of three and four-year-olds get funding for up to 30 hours of childcare a week, and up to 15 for two-year-olds.

In September 2024 and 2025, funding will be extended to nine-month-olds too.

Just 26% of providers feel confident their businesses will be viable once those changes come in.

Jo Ludlam says her nursery in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, is "scarily close" to having to shut down. Credit: Credit: ITV News Anglia

Jo Ludlam, who runs Warwick Community Playschool in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, said, despite her business being oversubscribed, it was "scarily close" to shutting.

"We run at a deficit of about £15,000 a month, every month - it’s getting tougher to keep a setting running," she said. "We try and provide the best that we can for the children, but we’re having to make massive cuts."

Mobeen Ashraf, managing director at Little Owls Day Nursery in Danbury, Essex, said since 2017 national living wage had increased by 55% while his government funding for three and four-year-olds had only risen by 23% in that time.

It means he is looking at a deficit of £600,000 a year.

"Nurseries will close down," he said. "If that doesn't change there are plenty of settings that will close down. We are having to be as creative as we can."

It means he has had to put restrictions on how many funded hours parents can use - something families struggle to understand.

"Parents are being told this is free childcare - that's not the case," he said. "We are compensated only £5.23 [per hour, per child].

"£5.23 doesn't cover the cost of childcare when you take into consideration the national minimum wage, the rents, and ever-increasing food costs, nappies, wipes, sun cream."

Childminders work to the same criteria as nurseries and pre-schools and are also feeling the pinch.

Leanne and Darren Hogg work 60 hours a week as childminders in Cambridge. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Leanne and Darren Hogg look after children from their home near Cambridge. They work 60 hours a week to ensure they can make ends meet.

"Continue with the funding, but please stop calling it free," said Mrs Hogg. "It literally does not cover enough. We have to pay bills, feed children, buy resources and have money to live on. It isn’t enough. No where near enough. And we haven’t got the overhead nurseries have so I really feel for them."

The Early Education and Childcare Coalition is calling on all political parties to prioritise childcare provision and education to "rescue and reform" the sector.

Coalition member Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “I'd like somebody to take early years education and care seriously.

"It's not just about getting parents back into work. This is about creating citizens for the future.

"Frankly, the sector was struggling to cope before the new entitlements for parents was announced."

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