Experts are cautioning that underprivileged families are facing barriers to accessing the significant increase in free nursery hours. An exclusive analysis by The Guardian has revealed a steep decline in the number of not-for-profit nurseries in the most deprived areas of England.
Based on official data, it was found that around one-third of non-profit childcare centers in the most impoverished areas of the country either shut down or were acquired by private companies, including those funded by private equity firms, between 2018 and 2022.
Special education needs and low-income families in the UK greatly rely on state-run and non-profit nurseries for childcare, according to experts.
Prior to the anticipated implementation of extended free childcare programs in April 2024, experts have stated that the plan may not be feasible unless the current staffing shortage is addressed.
Starting in April, parents who are employed and have two-year-old children will receive 15 hours of childcare per week at no cost to them for 38 weeks out of the year. Then, by September 2025, all parents with children under the age of five who qualify will have access to funding for 30 hours of childcare per week for 38 weeks out of the year.
Earlier this year, professionals cautioned that the childcare industry could potentially become a target for private equity, as investment funds have increased their ownership in the sector by over two times in just four years.
Joeli Brearley, founder of the advocacy group Pregnant Then Screwed, expressed concern that this could result in the closure of additional non-profit nurseries and create “childcare deserts” for families in need, including those with children who have special educational needs.
She stated that as childcare becomes a part of the welfare system and receives large amounts of funding from taxpayers, it is crucial that the money is used to improve the quality and accessibility of childcare, rather than benefiting big corporations.
The Guardian examined over 18,000 childcare facilities and discovered a significant decline in the number operated by non-profit organizations such as charities, councils, churches, and others over a span of four years.
Nearly one-third, or 29%, of non-profit nurseries in the most impoverished areas of England shut down or became privately owned between 2018 and 2022. This resulted in a 21% decrease in available non-profit childcare spots, while the population of children under the age of five in these regions only decreased by 15%.
In the past four years, there has been a 23% decrease in not-for-profit nurseries across England, while private company-run nurseries have increased by 10%.
Abby Jitendra, a policy adviser at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, stated that underprivileged children tend to do better in not-for-profit or state-run nurseries. However, these types of facilities are becoming scarce. This is due to the government holding not-for-profits to higher standards than other childcare providers, when the focus should be on ensuring that all children have access to high-quality care regardless of their location.
According to Sir Peter Lampl, the creator and leader of the Sutton Trust, disadvantaged families are currently unable to access financial assistance for childcare expenses. The organization’s research revealed that only 20% of the lowest-earning families are qualified for aid for three to four-year-olds, which mandates a minimum of 16 hours of work per week from parents.
He stated that daycares in low-income neighborhoods were shutting down due to the inadequate hourly rate provided by the government for “free hours,” which does not cover expenses. Additionally, there is limited ability to compensate for this shortfall by increasing fees for parents.
He stated that childcare should be viewed as education in the early years, and that it should be accessible to all young children.
University College London conducted a recent study and discovered that the private sector, which prioritizes profitability and growth, lacks explicit consideration for the well-being of vulnerable or disadvantaged children. This is due to the sector’s emphasis on complex financial structures and risky operational models.
According to Dr Antonia Simon, the main writer of the report, it is crucial to have strict measures in place for companies that are receiving funds from taxpayers. This is especially important as the Treasury intends to allocate an additional £4 billion per year towards funding nursery places.
“Is it possible for childcare services operated by companies focused on generating profits for shareholders to provide equal and just outcomes for all children?” she inquired. “We require strong measures in place to ensure that companies receiving public funding for childcare prioritize the needs of vulnerable children and are equally accessible in both deprived and non-deprived regions.”
According to Purnima Tanuku, the CEO of the National Day Nurseries Association, nurseries in economically disadvantaged areas are at a higher risk of closure due to a larger number of children who are funded by the government rather than paid for by parents.
The funding rate has been raised by the government, however, campaigners argue that it is insufficient to cover the expenses of providers.
From 2018 to 2022, there was a 10% decrease in childcare providers in the most disadvantaged regions of England, along with a 2% decrease in the number of available spots. In contrast, the least disadvantaged areas experienced a 4.3% decline in nurseries but a 5% rise in available spots.
Tanuku stated that high-quality early education and care is crucial for the future of children, particularly those from underprivileged areas who may have special needs. This type of education can aid in narrowing the achievement gap that often widens during their schooling years.
The government announced that it will be implementing the largest investment in childcare in the history of England, according to the Department for Education.
“In order to ensure sufficient availability throughout the country, we are currently allocating hundreds of millions of pounds towards increasing the hourly funding rates. Additionally, we will soon be distributing £100m in capital funding to further expand early years and wraparound spaces.”