By Brian O’Flynn

The government is just days away from rolling out more funded childcare hours for two-year-olds with working parents.

It’s the first stage of an 18-month extension of funded hours, which Rishi Sunak says is “the biggest expansion of childcare” in England’s history.

But exclusive FactCheck analysis reveals that families in poorer areas of England are more likely to struggle to find a place.

Our analysis looks at the number of childcare places in each council area, across both council-run and private providers, as well as school-based nurseries. This is not a perfect measure, but it gives a good indication of how much capacity there is in a given locality.

We then used government data to estimate the number of children – aged two, three, and four – in each area who will want to take up their free childcare hours from April.

This allows us to work out how well served each local authority will be from next month – and which areas are most at risk of gaps.

According to our projections for April 2024, the richest 20 per cent of council areas will have on average around 127 childcare places for every 100 children looking to take up their funded hours.

By contrast, the poorest 20 per cent of councils will have only around 96 places on average for every 100 of these children. (We’ve used government data on deprivation to make this comparison.)

And in dozens of council areas, things are even worse. Blackpool has the lowest provision – with just 78 places for every 100 children we expect to want funded hours. Leicester and Hull are next on the list, with 79 places.

This data suggests that while wealthier areas may have ample places to cater for both government-funded and parent-funded hours, parents in poorer areas are more likely to struggle to find space in their local childcare providers. That is, unless providers can expand.

But many nurseries and childminders say the money they get from the government for funded places just isn’t enough to cover their costs.

So they often rely on the parents who pay for private places to stay afloat. When more families switch from private to public funded hours next week, some of that income will be threatened – which could force nurseries and childminders to cut the number of places they can provide or even close down altogether.

And the areas most at risk are those where the pool of privately-paying parents was already small to begin with – the most deprived parts of the country.

There are a few caveats to our data.

Not every child will need full time care. So a “place” in the official datasets we’re using could end up being used by more than one child. For example, a nursery might look after one child only on Mondays and Tuesdays and use the same “place” to care for another child during the rest of the working week. On paper, that means we could be underestimating the supply of childcare.

However, our estimates don’t account for the fact that there will be additional demand from children whose families will pay privately for hours. For example, families of two-year-olds who don’t fall within the income limits for government funded hours may also want a place, but this isn’t captured in public data. That means there will be more people wanting nursery and childminder places than we’ve accounted for – so the real pressure on the system could be even greater.

The Department for Education told us it is “confident” in the strength of the childcare market — and every local authority is “currently meeting its statutory duty to secure sufficient numbers of childcare places”.

Blackpool Council told us the expansion of childcare is a challenge and it’s working hard to meet demand.

Leicester City Council says it expects to have enough places. But it also says the government’s approach “does not fully appreciate the challenges” that providers face.

And Hull Council says the timescale of the government’s roll-out is a challenge – and while it will have enough places in April, it expects to be stretched when even younger children become eligible for free childcare in September.


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