Planned increases in free childcare provision could stretch nurseries to breaking point and see some of them forced to close.
The owners of the Tunbridge Wells nursery Little Rascals have expressed fears that smaller providers in the town ‘may not be able to remain open’ next year.
The concerns follow the proposed national increase in Free Early Education Entitlement (FEEE). The current 15-hour allowance of free childcare per term-time week would be expanded to 30 hours.
Yet it is claimed that the £350million in additional funding for nurseries which has been earmarked by the Government to provide these extra hours will fall well short of the required sum. Experts say it is only a quarter of what is needed.
Little Rascals owners Felicity Merrick and Esther Green believe the increase in free hours may prove ‘another empty gesture for working parents’ and could do more harm than good with the potential strain on funding.
According to Kent County Council’s (KCC) Early Years and Childcare Strategy 2016-19, the ‘implications for the market’ regarding the increase in FEEE hours have been ‘of particular concern with many providers stating that levels of current funding (and proposed increased funding levels) do not cover costs’.
The fear that smaller nurseries may not be able to facilitate the changes and be forced to close correlates with the finding of ‘insufficient supply of childcare’ which was previously recorded in County Hall’s Childcare Sufficiency Assessment of 2014.
The report noted that 4.2 per cent of families in Tunbridge Wells said no childcare was available to them, compared to the 2.6 per cent across Kent as a whole.
KCC also disclosed in their Childcare Strategy that there were only 3,752 FEEE places available in 2015 to three and four-year-olds in the county.
Both Ms Merrick and Ms Green, whose nursery was recently rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, are concerned that overstretched budgets may lead to a growing shortage of nursery places available over the following year.
This means some nurseries ‘will just not be able to provide the 30-hour funded spaces that are required’, Ms Green said, adding that several providers were ‘already finding it hard to offer the current 15 hours at rates that had not increased for many years’.
Mary Stoner, founder of the children’s activity listing website Tunbridge Wells Kids on the Go, said the increase in term-time hours may prove a somewhat redundant gesture, as ‘the real challenge is childcare in the holidays when people like me work part time’.
Neil Leitch, Chief Executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, believes the extra hours – which are to be offered to any family with parents working over 16 hours a week and with a combined income of under £100,000 per year – are similarly not feasible.
He said: “Many nurseries do not have the capacity to deliver extra childcare places. I think we are at breaking point.”
A survey conducted by KCC prior to the summer revealed all 28 recorded nurseries in Tunbridge Wells were by July already anticipating full capacity for their 2016 intake.