Councils concerned about early years capacity

  • 3rd July 2024

With just over two months to go until the next phase in the rollout of major expansion to free childcare, councils across England have raised concerns about having enough places to meet demand, identifying the workforce as their biggest concern, in new research published by Coram Family and Childcare (CFC).

Just two in five councils (41%) say they are ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ that they will have enough places to meet demand for the September 2024 expansion (15 free hours from nine months for eligible working parents). This is up from 28% in January 2024.

However, with the next phase of the rollout fast approaching, this still leaves nearly six in ten (59%) councils either not confident or unsure if there will be sufficient places.

Councils’ confidence in the final phase of the rollout in September 2025 (30 hours from nine months for eligible working parents) is much lower, with just 11% reporting they are ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ that there will be enough places to meet demand.

This figure is practically unchanged from January 2024 (12%).

The vast majority of councils (75%) report that their biggest concern in delivery of the childcare expansion is the local workforce, reflecting the significant ongoing challenges to recruit and retain staff.

This is three times higher than any other concern.

The report also indicates how the first phase of the expansion (15 free hours for two-year-olds from April 2024) has been going so far.

A shortfall of places

Just over half (52%) of councils say that all, or almost all, eligible parents in their area who wanted to take up the new entitlements have been able to.

This is reflective of councils’ predictions in January 2024 about their areas’ preparedness for the first phase of the expansion, as 60% reported then that they were ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ about having enough places to meet demand.

Over half (53%) of councils identify the local workforce as having been a ‘barrier’ or ‘significant barrier’ to the successful delivery of this first phase of the rollout, while 36% of councils identified local buildings and space and 21% reported sufficiency of childcare places for children with SEND, as ‘barriers’ or ‘significant barriers’ to delivery.

Ellen Broomé, managing director of Coram Family and Childcare, said: “While it is encouraging that councils’ confidence in having enough places for all families who want one this September has gone up since we last asked them, this figure is still worryingly low considering we are just two months away from this second phase of the childcare expansion.

“This follow-up report finds that councils’ previous responses about their preparedness for the April 2024 expansion mirrors the proportion of families who have been able to access their place.

“This shows that they have a good understanding of their local situation and their concerns should be listened to.

Workforce pressures

“Given that just 11% of councils are confident about the final phase of the expansion in September 2025, we are concerned there may be further issues not only this September, but further down the line for families in getting the childcare they need.

“And, with three quarters citing staffing as their number one barrier to delivery of the expansion, our research reiterates the urgent need for a workforce strategy that addresses the recruitment and retention crisis in the sector.

“For this policy to be a success, it is essential that all families can take up their entitlements, and the next few months will be a crucial time in making sure they can.

“No child should miss out on the early years education they need to thrive, and all parents should be able to make meaningful decisions about work and care.

“We want the next government to commit to the necessary reforms to make this a reality.”

The CFC also recently published its manifesto for childcare reform, setting out how the next government can fix the problems of high costs and low quality, and barriers to access and inclusion by reforming the system, resolving the workforce crisis, and allocating sufficient funding to the early years sector.

Commenting on the findings, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “Today’s research from Coram paints an extremely-concerning picture of the remaining phases of the early entitlement expansion.

Alarm bells

“Not only are a significant proportion of local authorities far from confident that they will be able to meet increased demand, but the fact that 75% highlight staffing challenges as their biggest concern should set alarm bells ringing.

“Let’s be clear, if meaningful action isn’t taken soon to address the significant staffing and capacity challenges facing the sector, families understandably hoping to take advantage of expansion will likely be left disappointed.

“With the election now just a week away, whoever forms the next government must commit to ensuring that England’s early years sector is able to sustainably meet demand, not just for the future phases of the expansion but long into the future.”

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