Childcare sector in ‘crisis’ with ‘pitiful’ number of childminders signing up to government grant scheme

Exclusive: ‘This latest childminder numbers debacle is yet more evidence that the Tories offered a pledge without a delivery plan,’ says shadow education secretary

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s correspondent
Monday 27 May 2024 22:34 BST
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Childminders most frequently complain of being undervalued, underpaid and overworked
Childminders most frequently complain of being undervalued, underpaid and overworked (PA)

The government’s childcare policy is at risk of failure as figures reveal that a “pitiful” number of childminders have signed up for the government’s grant scheme.

Information obtained by The Independent via a freedom of information request shows that 1,627 grants were awarded through the government’s childminder start-up grant initiative between the end of November last year and the end of March – with some 1,837 applications during this period.

Meanwhile, the number of childminders has more than halved in the last 10 years, falling from 56,200 in 2013 to 27,900 last year, leaving a huge shortfall in childcare providers.

Providers are facing higher costs including insurance, Ofsted fees, food costs and gas and electricity bills while parents are also having their incomes squeezed.

Campaigners said the grants of up to £1,200 awarded so far are a “drop in the ocean” in a struggling childcare sector grappling with both a staffing and funding crisis.

The childminder start-up grant – £600 for those who register with Ofsted and £1,200 for workers who register with a childminder agency – began last November.

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “This latest childminder numbers debacle is yet more evidence that the Tories offered a pledge without a delivery plan – and families desperately in need of childcare will end up paying the price of broken Conservative promises.”

She said Labour will roll out a “reformed childcare and early years system to better support families to access childcare”.

The first part of the chancellor’s £4bn extension of free childcare – an attempt to win over voters in the lead-up to the election in July – came into force last month.

Under the new policy, eligible working parents of two-year-olds have been told they can claim 15 hours a week of free childcare for 38 weeks per year from April onwards. From September 2025, working parents who have children under the age of five will be able to claim 30 hours of free childcare for 38 weeks per year. Applications will open on 12 May for the second wave of funded childcare.

But Lucie Stephens, of the Early Education and Childcare Coalition, said there was a “real risk” parents will be hunting for childcare places that “just aren’t there”.

Previous research by her organisation and the University of Leeds found almost four in 10 childminders are thinking about quitting the sector in the next year.

It comes after The Independent recently revealed that thousands of nurseries had shut their doors amid staffing shortages, sparking fears that the government’s promise to expand free childcare was “doomed to failure”.

Helen Donohoe, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (Pacey), said: “With the government themselves admitting they need 40,000 more staff in order to roll out the expansion of the funded entitlement scheme, 1,627 childminders in four months is a small drop in the ocean considering childminders provide 166,000 childcare places.”

Concerns have been raised only 1,000 childminders will be left in England by the time we reach 2035 if workers continue to flee the sector at the current rate – a tiny fraction of a total of almost 60,000 when the sector was at its peak.

Exclusive polling by the Early Education and Childcare Coalition, shared with The Independent, shows 15 per cent of parents with one-year-olds said childminders were their preferred type of childcare.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said the number of childminders who have signed up for the grant scheme is “pitiful” in the context of a crisis-stricken childcare sector.

“What is actually needed is a long-term retention strategy and that means adequate investment in the earnings and conditions of workers in the early years sector,” he added. “Without this, we are simply fire-fighting rather than tackling the root cause.”

Mr Leitch, whose organisation represents nurseries, pre-schools and registered childminders among others, warned the grant scheme runs the risk of attracting childminders who then do not stay in the sector once that initial incentive has gone.

He added: “This is skilled, exhausting and professional work. Given the consistent number of closures of childminders and early years settings overall it is clear this is a sector in crisis. This is the result of systemic neglect from the government in respect to funding and a lack of recognition that childcare is part of the education system.

“People leave the early years sector for three prime reasons: being undervalued, particularly by the government, exhausted and underpaid.”

Jane Davies, a childminder from Derbyshire, said she was not eligible for the government’s start-up grant due to already working in the sector.

“The start-up grants haven’t solved any problems,” she added. “It is not very much. It wouldn’t cover the costs of setting up. Nobody wants to come into the sector anymore.”

She explained she is planning on leaving the sector due to struggling to make ends meet and feeling “very overworked” and “undervalued”.

The 59-year-old, who has been a childminder for 16 years, said: “You can earn more working in Aldi than you can as a childminder. I’ve just done my tax return and I only earned about £8,000 per year after all the tax and running costs were deducted.”

Ms Davies said she knows many childminders who have already left the sector as she hit out at a lack of support from the government and being forced to pay for mandatory courses which were free a few years ago.

She warned insurance, registration and Ofsted fees have soared, with food costs and gas and electricity bills shooting up. Her funding struggles have worsened since the first phase of the government’s latest free childcare provision started in April, she added, saying the funding is not enough to cover running costs and three nurseries in her area have gone bankrupt since then.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “This is just one way we’re supporting childminders who stand to benefit the most from our significant boost to government hourly funding rates for the new free hours.

“More widely, childminders make up just 11 per cent of childcare providers. We are confident in the strength of the sector to deliver the largest ever expansion to government-funded childcare in England, backed by a nationwide recruitment campaign to boost the workforce across the sector.”

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