Findings published today by the Daycare Trust show the Government is neglecting to help families that need childcare most. While for all children the childcare gap has shrunk from nine children for every one registered place to 7.5 to 1, care for toddlers under three has not improved.
Although there is an increasing number of places for children with childminders, day nurseries and out-of-school clubs, many nurseries will not take children aged under three. "Childcare for younger children is more expensive to provide and costs more, because higher staff ratios and more space is needed ..." said Colette Kelleher, director of the Daycare Trust.
The proportion of parents who work is rising faster among parents of children under four than among those with older children.
While the Government's Sure Start programme demonstrates its commitment to supporting younger children, it reaches a maximum of 5 per cent of children under four years old.
Official figures show there are 1.8 million under-threes. But fewer than 15,000 children receive voluntary or private- sector day-care paid for by local authorities and fewer than 40,000 attend state nurseries. Two-thirds of mothers return to work after maternity leave and 55 per cent of mothers whose youngest child is under five are economically active.
The Government's plans to extend free part-time early education to two-thirds of children aged three by 2003 will not help working families who need an all-day service for their children.
For Dawn Benjamin, 29, a single mother in north London, getting childcare has proved impossible. She has a two-year-old daughter, Tavannah, and would like to return to a job in banking.
"I am dying to go back to work. I loved working and want to be a good role model for my daughter," she said. "I have tried to get her placed in a nursery, as childminding would be too expensive for me but it has been impossible. Some nurseries say she is too young and the others are full. I want to earn a decent wage to give my daughter a better life. The Government should be providing more childcare."