Coram Childcare Survey: A concerning decrease in available childcare places

  • 19th March 2024

Coram Childcare Survey 2024 has revealed a ‘dramatic’ decrease in availability of childcare places, and that children with SEND are largely loosing out.

This year sees the start of the Government’s plans to extend the provision of early education and care.

The scheme will run across three stages:

  • April 2024, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare
  • September 2024, 15 hours of free childcare will be extended to all children from the age of nine months
  • September 2025,working parents of children under the age of five will be entitled to 30 hours free childcare per week

The Government claims will give childcare providers time to prepare for the changes, ensuring there are enough providers ready to meet demand.

However, the Coram Childcare Survey found significant increases in the cost of childcare across various areas.

And it shows that costs across the UK have increased by 7.4% and, coupled with the continued cost-of-living crisis. families and providers continue to struggle.

Cost of childcare continues to rise

Since the survey began the price of childcare has risen year on year, but the survey found that this year there has been a particularly-worrying increase.

The average cost of a part time childcare place for a child under two in a UK nursery is now £157.68 per week (£7,569 a year) and £151.72 for a two-year old (£6,264 per year).

That is an increase of 7.4% for children aged under two and 6.2% for two-year-olds.

The most-expensive area in the country is inner London, where parents pay an average of £218 per week for one part-time nursery place.

There are some working parents of three- and four-year-olds in England and Wales who are eligible for 30 hours of funded childcare a week during term time.

If they need to pay for 20 extra hours to take this up to a full-time place (50 hours a week) the average weekly price in a nursery is £120.93 in England, a 4.1% increase since last year, and £102.81 in Wales, a 4.8% increase.

In Scotland, all three- and four-year-olds can access 1,140 hours of funded childcare per year. This equates to 30 hours a week during term-time, or about 22 hours if spread across the year.

For a full-time place in a nursery (50 hours a week) in Scotland, families are paying on average £96.74 per week if they are receiving 30 hours of funded childcare and paying for 20 hours.

Childcare pressures: Scotland & Wales

The Coram Childcare Survey focused on some of the financial pressures impacting the sustainability of childcare provision in Scotland and Wales.

In Scotland:

  • 24% of local authorities cite the cost of recruiting and retaining staff as decreasing sustainability
  • 24% also cite parents’ and carers’ abilities to pay for places as decreasing sustainability
  • 19% of local authorities report that providers have increased prices charged to parents

In Wales:

  • 89% of local authorities report that the costs associated with recruiting and retaining staff is decreasing provider sustainability
  • 72% report that the cost of staff in general is decreasing sustainability
  • 78% of local authorities report that providers have increased prices charged to parents

Availability of childcare places

The availability of childcare places has decreased in England across all areas of provision, with only a third (34%) of English councils reporting sufficient childcare for parents working full-time, a decrease of 14 percentage points on 2023, and just over one in three (35%) reporting enough childcare for children under two, down by 14 percentage points on last year.

Coram highlighted that, while the survey has consistently found low provision for parents working atypical hours, this has fallen to only 9% this year. Similarly, the frequently low provision for families in rural areas has fallen to just 16%.

The findings also show that it is the most-disadvantaged children who are missing out, with just 6% of councils reporting sufficient childcare for children with disabilities, a decrease of 12 percentage points on 2023.

There are also continued decreases in the availability of childcare across all other areas of provision measured in the survey, including for parents working atypical hours (down by seven percentage points on 2023) and families in rural areas (down by 14 percentage points on 2023).

The survey also finds that children with SEND lose out the most, with only 6% of councils reporting sufficient childcare for children with disabilities.

Local authorities have raised concerns about how providers will be able to meet their rising costs and deliver the provision needed for their communities, especially for children with SEND.

In fact, 63% are concerned about sufficiency for children with SEND, and 57% about funding for children with SEND.

The uncertainty about the success of the rollout is clear, with local authorities expecting it will have a negative impact on availability of the universal 15 hours entitlement for three- to four-year-olds, with 27% expecting fewer available places overall, 39% expecting fewer families to be able to take up their places without any charge, and 33% expecting fewer places to be available for children with SEND.

Ellen Broomé, managing director of Coram Family and Childcare, said: “The new childcare support that is being rolled out from April has the potential to be a game changer for parents up and down the country – many of whom have found themselves facing eye-watering childcare bills and sometimes even locked out of work because of childcare costs.

“Our findings – with higher costs and dramatic drops in availability of childcare places – are concerning at this crucial time, showing the scale of challenge and the very-real risks around this policy not living up to parents’ expectations.

“Unless this policy is properly funded and supported, it could have the opposite effect, with families unable to access or afford the childcare they need and the most disadvantaged children set to miss out.

“The recent additional funding from the Chancellor was welcome, but won’t address the long-term systemic challenges of high childcare costs for parents, the workforce recruitment and retention crisis, or the lack of availability of places for children with SEND.

“Over the next few months, we need the Government to work closely with local authorities and childcare providers to make sure they are supported to deliver for families. And, in this election year, we are calling on all political parties to commit to reforming our childcare system to make sure all children can access high-quality early years education and all parents can make meaningful choices about work and care.”  

Survey recommendations

The findings from the survey revealed increasing financial pressures for both operators and parents.

And it is clear that investment alone is not enough.

The childcare system desperately needs further reform if it is to remain sustainable, which means the Government needs to look at the wider challenges that are equally crippling the sector.

The recommendations have been split into two categories to be considered.

Immediate action:

  • Re-allocate the underspend from Tax-Free Childcare to other parts of the childcare system
  • Extend the current 30 hours funded early education entitlements to parents in training or education and migrant parents
  • Increase funding for children with SEND and simplify the funding application process
  • Bring the early years pupil premium in line with the primary pupil premium to decrease the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers
  • Appoint a dedicated chief early years officer 

Long-term actions:

  • Create a workforce strategy to address the pressing issues of staff recruitment, retention, and skills
  • Agree a funding settlement that guarantees the true cost of provision, and sets out the conditions of receiving that funding, including quality supplements or SEND provision, and is monitored and updated annually
  • Simplify and streamline the childcare offer to families, with a single scheme that follows children from end of parental leave until the end of primary school
  • Introduce a right to early education, with a guarantee of a funded childcare place for all children, regardless of their or their parents’ or carers’ backgrounds, bringing early years in line with schools

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “With just a short amount of time to go until the rollout of the extended entitlement offer, this report raises serious questions about whether the expansion is even close to being workable in practice over the long term.

“Not only are parents facing surging early years costs, but the availability of places is plummeting at a time when they are needed more than ever.

“Despite the Government’s insistence that the new entitlement offers will be available to all eligible families, it is clear from this report that many councils remain concerned, particularly about future phases of the expansion, with 90% citing staffing challenges as a significant barrier to the rollout.

“Yet, is any of this really a surprise?

“While nurseries, pre-schools, and childminders do their best to provide high-quality, affordable early education and care, years of neglect have left the sector in an utterly dire situation – and without the robust infrastructure needed to roll out the upcoming expansion.

“To say time is running out is an understatement.

“It is absolutely critical that the Government wakes up to the reality of the situation and takes the urgent action needed to support early years providers – namely adequate funding and a clear workforce strategy that focuses on retention as well as recruitment.

“Ministers chose to make a big promise to families; it’s up to them to ensure the sector is able to deliver on it.”

Purnima Tanuku OBE, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) Cymru, added: “Expanding the offer made to parents in Wales is a priority, but this data shows there are a lot of challenges already in the system that need to be addressed before embracing any expansion plans.

“We are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of childcare providers across Wales.

“Our survey shows that 91% of nurseries expect to make a loss or break even this year and 89% of councils in Wales have told Coram that recruitment costs are reducing sustainability of providers.

“In addition, half the local authorities report that the Childcare Offer funding rate is reducing sustainability.

“This is worrying for the sector and for the families who rely on childcare, who are going to find it more difficult to find places for their children especially for two-year-olds and the Childcare Offer for three and four-year-olds.

“There are also very few places for children with Additional Learning Needs (ALN) although that has improved slightly on last year and low levels of wraparound childcare for school-aged children.

“The sector desperately needs support so that providers can focus on the high-quality Early Childhood Play, Learning and Care that delivers the best outcomes for children and supports families while boosting the economy.”

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