Parents are being left without childcare as thousands of nurseries are suffering crippling staff shortages that force them to close at short notice.
The overall number of childcare providers in England dropped by around 4,000 between March 2021 and March 2022, the largest decline since 2016, according to figures from Ofsted.
Neil Leitch, the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, told the BBC that the nursery industry is suffering from a “recruitment and retention crisis” that has not been seen before.
“When you have nurseries that are closing because they cannot staff the various rooms, when they’re having to give very short notice to parents, when staff are leaving in droves because they can get higher salaries elsewhere, I wouldn’t describe that as anything other than a crisis,” Mr Leitch told the BBC’s Today programme.
“We need a career progression. You have people walking out the door on a daily basis. Three years ago, we operated in 132 settings in areas of deprivation. Today, 65.”
Campaign Group Pregnant Then Screwed said it had been “inundated” with messages from parents who said their nurseries were closing.
‘For a lot of parents it’s quite a lot of stress’
Orest Bakhovski, from Uxbridge, north west London, said he and his wife must find a new nursery by January after their local council-run facility in Hillingdon announced it would be closing at the end of December.
The father of two children, aged three and eight months, said things were made harder because there were already insufficient places, with just six places available and a waiting list of 18 for the year at the nursery they are now having to leave.
The 35-year-old manager at a telecoms company said: “I think for a lot of parents it’s quite a lot of stress because, outside of just purely the cost argument, it’s a scramble to find a nursery place and maybe more so other parents than us, but it’s a real debate about ‘actually do both partners continue working or just one partner stay at home?”‘
He added it was a “slap in the face” against the backdrop of the current cost-of-living crisis and that parents and carers have launched a petition to keep the nursery open.
A report to Hillingdon Council said three early years centres were recommended for closure as they were operating at a £532,000 loss “despite several attempts to improve their viability” and that “the wider early years market can absorb the provision directly provided by the council”.
‘Nightmare for childcare providers’
Pregnant Then Screwed chief executive Joeli Brearly told the PA news agency parents across the country were “in a real mess” and the situation was a “nightmare” for providers, who are also facing a “staffing crisis”.
She said her organisation had been trying to help by giving parents advice on how to make flexible working requests.
She added: “It’s a lack of government funding that’s creating this problem.”
Many parents living in England with children between three and four years old can currently get 30 hours of free childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year.
Labour has hit out at the Conservative government, accusing it of “deliberate underfunding”.
Bridget Phillipson MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said: “Under the Conservatives, childcare has become unavailable and unaffordable. Another 4,000 providers have closed over the last year in a blow to parents juggling work and childcare.
“The Conservatives’ deliberate underfunding of their ‘free’ childcare hours is forcing providers to cross-subsidise by charging parents more for extras and additional hours.
“Many providers are still operating at a loss or have been forced to close their doors for good, leaving families without access to the childcare they need. The Tories are failing our children.”
The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.