Cumbrian parents giving up work due to 'childcare crisis'

ITV Border has learned parents are being forced to give up work to look after their children because of what some are calling a 'crisis' in early years childcare.Staff and parents say families are being left with no choice because nurseries are closing or struggling to recruit.It's a national problem but it's often worse in rural areas, as Fiona Marley Paterson has been finding.Almost every nursery we spoke to in South Cumbria said they just don't have enough staff and parents say it's becoming incredibly stressful trying to find a place for their child.Meghan Beal, a Solicitor with an 18 month old and another on the way living near Windermere, told us things got very difficult when her son's nursery closed in March, because it had become more profitable to run the nursery as a guest house than it was to run it as a nursery. 

Meghan says she managed to get her son into another one but only because she was so quick to call the only other provider.

She said: "When I went the next morning she said it's a good job you rang because I have now been inundated with calls and we wouldn't have been able to offer you anything. They could only offer certain days, a lot of it was not full days. But I know since our nursery closed in Windermere a lot of parents haven't been able to and they've had to give up work because they've not been able to get them in anywhere else. It makes it near impossible as a Mum to return to work."Meghan says more often than not it's mothers having to make the decision to potentially cut short their career because of the lack of childcare.

She added: "It almost puts you off getting pregnant and actually having kids. When our next baby comes along if all the nurseries round here tell me they're full I will have no option but to give up my job. It's an awful position to be in really."It's a problem affecting almost every new parent in South Cumbria. In Kendal alone 6 nurseries have closed in 7 years. They say they're in crisis.

The Early Years Alliance says 84% of nurseries are facing a staffing crisis and when they surveyed workers a third said they're thinking of leaving. Pay was a factor for just over half but the main factor, felt by 77% of workers, was feeling undervalued for the work they do.

Peter Graveson, Director of Sunnybrow nursery says he has had to close one nursery because he just didn't have the staff.

He said: "In the last 12 months there have been at least 10 staff left. Some were spending £200/300 a month just on fuel just to get to work and they simply wouldn't have left otherwise. So there's less people going into it; more people dropping out of it because some of the other sectors can offer more pay. We would offer more pay but if we offered more pay we'd simply be out of business."

Many nurseries are finding it more difficult to compete with the salaries now being offered by other employers who are all also facing a recruitment crisis. Nurseries say their are already on the verge of not being profitable.

Peter added: "We have increased the pay because the national minimum wage has gone up. But you've got your gas and electricity doubled and your 10% increase on staffing. We've increased the fees to parents by 10% but we've probably only got about a 1.5-2% increase from the Government."

The Government says it has invested over £10bn in the last 3 years in nurseries. It's commissioned a report to find a solution. One suggestion is to change the staff to child ratio so they can look after more children, but even the report authors say that could make it worse: adding to workload could make more staff leave. And it's unlikely to bring the cost down for parents.

Peter said: "More and more pressure's put on them to perform and they're just feeling no value at all because it's a pressure job looking after these little children. The most important thing in someone's life is their child and you are responsible for that."

But he says the effect of that lack of staff is that waiting lists are now so bad that parents are "very desperate".

He said: "People are now trying to book babies in as soon as they become pregnant, we haven't yet had anybody that's quite preconception yet but it is heading in that direction. But the harsh reality is if you've got a room full of one-year olds and it's full, when they go on to become two-year olds it's still going to be full."

The problem is even worse in Sedbergh, where parents say there is no under-two childcare.

The only under-two provision closed because of covid, leaving what one group says are 110 families needing childcare.Laura Burnham says she races home from work as a teacher, because she's now relying on friends to help.

She said: "We have got term-time solutions for two-plus but for then all children in Summer, Christmas, Easter, you know those 13 weeks, people have changed their job or are doing unpaid term-time only work. And one mum in particular is going to Kendal before 8am to drop her son, come back, start work and then go back to pick him up and bring him back."The rise in remote working means more families are moving out of cities. So demand for childcare in rural areas looks set to increase, with fewer nurseries, with fewer staff.