‘Who will look after their children?’ - Nurseries and childminders voice fears for the future ahead of free childcare changes
- Credit: PA
Frustrated childminders and nursery schools in Norfolk and Suffolk have urged the government to rethink its 'damaging' policy to double free childcare hours before many are forced to close.
In recent years, early years providers have been faced with rising costs, less cash and changing goalposts, in a market which has become increasingly challenging.
But the picture will worsen in September when the government doubles the 15 hours of free childcare for eligible parents of three and four-year-olds - with many saying they will be thousands of pounds out of pocket, and others fearing closure.
Providers offering the funded places are given an hourly rate by their county council - but with a base rate of £3.65 in Norfolk and £3.87 in Suffolk, it is often lower than they charge for paying parents, losing them cash every hour, every child.
Many felt obliged to offer the 15 hours to keep up with competitors, but have covered the shortfall with both custom from paying parents, and extra paid-for services and days from funded families.
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But there are fears this will not be sustainable when the free hours rise to 30, driving providers out of business, leaving spaces few and far between and pushing up costs.
As of December last year, there were 854 registered early years providers, offering just over 15,500 places.
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Among them is Laura King, a Sprowston-based childminder who has been in the field for 36 years, weathering difficulties which have seen UK childminder numbers drop by 10,000 since 2010.
She is worried about the future and said that, based on loose calculations, she could easily lose £720 per child each year.
'There's going to be a lot of childminders and nurseries that will be badly hit,' she said, 'particularly in rural areas. If you can only get custom for funded places and no other work, you'll lose out hugely.
'I know childminders who are thinking about giving up - people think it's no longer worth it. I'll keep going because this is what I love - but it's going to be damaging.'
It was a message echoed by Sam Dunn, childminder and owner of Little Smiles Preschool in Lakenham, who said the hours were not 'free'.
'It's not free childcare,' she said. 'It costs me, and providers, money. As it stands, lots of preschools will close, particularly the volunteer-run. 'This is such a rewarding job, but it's hugely complex and parents often don't realise how difficult things are.'
National surveys estimate that more than a fifth of providers will choose to not offer the 30 hours, creating a shortage of places for parents.
MORE: Survey reveals uncertainty around incoming free childcare changesThough providers can charge for additional services - such as meals - they cannot ask parents for top-ups to cover the shortfall, while the competitive market limits how much extra paying parents can be charged.
One preschool manager in west Norfolk, speaking anonymously, said she would be out of pocket by thousands each year.
'I'm doing my best to make ends meet but with dozens of families on roll and having the living wage for my brilliant staff, it will easily reach £30,000. The 15 hours was bad enough,' she said.
'I don't know where our future lies, but parents should know we are not alone - and that if providers close, who will look after their children?'
Jayne White, who has owned Loddon Nursery School since 1993, said allowing parents to voluntarily pay top-ups would help, and that providers were 'stuck between a rock and a hard place'.
'If we don't offer 30 hours we risk parents going to other places,' she said. 'If we do we will have to shoulder those losses. It's really, really difficult – and it doesn't happen in any other business.'
Dereham-based Little Owls Day Nursery manager Johnny Watts agreed. 'If we don't offer the 30 hours, parents will go to the nursery which does.'
For the volunteer-run Wensum Valley Nursery School, in Lyng, a change in threshold for two funding boosts it received for flexibility and quality has left finances tight.
Manager Pauline Rowley said: 'Losing the supplements has been huge. While we are lucky enough to still have a small buffer, that won't last forever and we're likely to see that next year.'
Maintained nurseries are a 'jewel in the crown'
The future of maintained nurseries has long been a concern, and was the subject of a parliamentary debate in February.
Local authority-run nurseries are described as the 'jewel in the crown' of early years education, with 60pc rated outstanding by Ofsted.
But their numbers have dwindled - today, there are about 400 in the country and just four across Norfolk and Suffolk.
A government consultation into early years funding could see their hourly money drop significantly - in other areas such as Birmingham, unions say it could be by as much as £4 per hour.
They are expected to operate in a competitive market but would be funded on the same level as their private counterparts - and still have to meet the costs of being a school, including employing a qualified headteacher and teachers.
Though there is funding to help with the transition until 2020, unions say maintained nurseries' futures will not be viable afterwards.
One of Norfolk's three nurseries, the Earlham Early Years Centre, has in the past encouraged its parents to sign a petition to save nursery schools.
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