Rishi Sunak at a Family Hub as Tory childcare plan threatens nursery closures (Picture: No 10 on Flickr)

More than 180,000 nursery and childminder places could be under threat due to the Tories “botched” plans to expand free childcare. That is the message from a number of surveys just weeks before the new scheme is due to start. A much-heralded plan to give two-year-old children 15 hours of free care a week is to start at the beginning of April.

It is supposed to be followed in increments until all children over nine months have some provision paid for. But phase one of the scheme has already hit the rocks. Not only has the government’s online voucher scheme been plagued with problems, but funding for the scheme is also making nurseries unviable.

Many major nurseries warn that they could go bust if the scheme is introduced in its current form. A survey by parents’ groups found more than three quarters of families had struggled to access the new entitlements. A quarter say the uncertainty left them unable to confirm working hours with their employer.

And a separate survey by the campaign group Early Years Alliance found 24 percent of nurseries believe that it is likely or very likely that their setting will close over the next 12 months. Claire Richmond from Goslings Nursery in Coventry told the Mirror newspaper that operators don’t expect government payments to come anywhere near the real cost per child. “Three-year old and four-year-old funding covers roughly 70 percent of the true costs of delivering the funded hours,” she said. 

She said the current cost of providing high quality pre-school education to children three and over is made up by charging parents of under-threes more. But that option will decrease as more younger children are offered free hours.

“Once we can no longer deliver it, we are essentially forced to go bust,” she said. “I feel really angry. At no point did the Conservative government engage with the sector over their idea. It was a vote grabbing promise, written on the back of a fag packet.”

The growing crisis leaves millions of parents in limbo. Many are still unsure as to whether they have a childcare place for their children—and even if they do, how long it will last. That places a very sharp burden on working class women in particular. The choice for many is to work but spend most of their wages on childcare, or to be pushed out of work to look after children.

And the problem is not simply that the government has underfunded the expansion of childcare. It is that such a vital service is largely delegated to the private sector where making a profit is the biggest priority. All childcare should be provided free by the state, exactly as school-aged education is. 

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