Rishi Sunak’s free childcare scheme under threat from staffing crisis

Nursery teacher
Nursery teacher

Nursery staff who want jobs that allow them to work from home pose a threat to Rishi Sunak’s free childcare scheme, an expert has warned.

The Prime Minister has pledged to offer working parents of two-year-olds 15 hours of care a week from April while working families with children up to the age of four will eventually receive 30 hours of free childcare a week.

However, the plans have come under criticism this week following reports that the sector’s staffing crisis, as well as delays to funding packages and issues with IT, risked jeopardising the rollout.

On Tuesday, an early years’ expert warned the sector’s recruitment crisis is so dire that even with sufficient government funding, there is not enough staff available to meet the rising need for childcare places.

Prof Sally Pearse, the strategic lead for early years at Sheffield Hallam University, said many childcare workers had re-evaluated their careers during the Covid pandemic, and are continuing to leave the profession for jobs that give them more flexibility, such as working from home, and better pay.

“Obviously if you work in early years you do not have the option to work from home, you’ve got to be fully present and fully focused the whole time and for very little pay, so I think a lot of people reevaluated during lockdown.

“If you’re not going to be paid what you should be and not valued in the way you should be then there are other options open to you that are a lot less stressful and a lot less responsibility, so I can fully understand why we struggle to recruit.

“The really sad thing is that it’s such a fantastic job, working in early years is so rewarding and it relies on that goodwill that once people go into it they stay in it because they love working with children and families, but the Government has got to be serious about how they value this if they have these ambitions.

“I think also the pandemic has made the job a lot more challenging, families are often fragile and on the edge, so there’s a lot more emotional labour involved in supporting families who are going through really difficult times and I think nurseries play a really crucial role in communities and I don’t think we value them enough.”

She added: “The free early learning as it’s configured currently doesn’t cover the cost of delivery if that’s the bulk of what the provider is delivering. And that’s the reason why in areas that are disadvantaged you’re least likely to have access to a nursery place already.

“On top of that the whole sector is currently facing a recruitment and retention crisis so they just cannot recruit the staff so even if the funding was right, they still wouldn’t have the staff available to meet a rising need for childcare places. It’s a perfect storm.”

“We’re already losing nurseries, we’re already losing childminders. Unless we start to address the social value that we place on early years we’re not going to turn that situation around. We’ve got to make it an attractive career option for our young people and we’ve got to pay and value them properly once they’re in the profession if we’re going to succeed in this ambition to have an increase in nursery places across the country.”

Meghan Meek O-Connor, senior policy advisor at Save the Children UK, said: “Staff in the early years sector are skilled workers dedicated to supporting children but are operating in a system stacked against them financially.

“We know many are leaving the profession altogether when faced with low wages and spiralling operating costs.

“Considering 40,000 new staff may need to be recruited by September 2025 to fulfil the Government’s ambitious free hours childcare plan, decision makers must heed warnings from experts that there is a £4bn shortfall in funding.

“Confusion over the 15 hours for two-year-olds, uncertainty around funding and the new guidance around relaxing ratios all add up to more strain on staff, which means we are extremely concerned about a looming recruitment crisis.”

It comes amid suggestions an extra 40,000 additional early years staff would be needed to be drafted into the sector when the plans are brought in.

Speaking in the Commons on Tuesday, Florence Eshalomi, the Labour MP for Vauxhall, cited an estimation by the Women’s Budget Group which suggested that the second stage of the rollout would need “at least 40,000 additional new early years’ staff” to “cope”.

The Prime Minister’s flagship free childcare scheme, first announced by Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, at the Budget last year, will ramp up overtime so working families with children aged between nine months and four years old receive 30 hours of free childcare a week.

The complete offer of 30 hours for all under-fives is scheduled for September 2025, meaning it will not come into place until after the next general election.

The first phase will go ahead in April of this year, Mr Sunak insisted on Tuesday, amid concerns over funding, IT problems and staff shortages.

Mr Sunak conceded his flagship free childcare plan is experiencing some “practical issues” in its rollout but insisted eligible parents will be able to access services on time.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We are confident in the strength of our childcare market to deliver the largest ever expansion in childcare in England’s history, set to save working parents using 30 hours a week an average of £6,500 per year.

“Our data shows the number of early years staff and places increased in 2023 – but we know there is more to be done. That’s why we will shortly be launching a national recruitment campaign and are looking to introduce a new accelerated apprenticeship route into the sector to help recruit new staff.

“We are also investing hundreds of millions of pounds to increase rates paid for government-funded hours, which can be used to support staff salaries, and are providing a package of training, qualifications, and expert guidance worth up to £180 million.”

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