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Staff shortages undermine manifesto plans to boost childcare in England

Staff shortages undermine manifesto plans to boost childcare in England

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The UK’s next government must address chronic staffing shortages in the childcare sector if it is to deliver on a promise to roll out a major expansion of infant provision, the sector has warned.

The Conservatives committed to keeping their £4bn flagship policy to provide parents of children from nine months to school age in England with 30 hours of free childcare a week, by September 2025, if the party wins next month’s general election.

In its manifesto, Labour said it would keep the policy and add more than 100,000 places for children from nine months old, as well as roll out 3,000 new primary school-based nurseries.

But experts have warned that the sector, with its chronic low rates pay and high staff turnover, will struggle to hire or retain the workers needed to create these new places.

“The absolute number one concern of childcare providers is the lack of staff,” said Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, an educational charity and membership group.

“We know the reasons why people have left the sector and it’s down to low pay, feeling undervalued by the government, and pure exhaustion of working longer hours because of staff shortages.”

The government estimates that 40,000 more staff will need to be recruited to the childcare sector by September 2025 if its policy is to be implemented in full.

Vacancies for childcare practitioners have risen since the Covid-19 pandemic. Job postings in May were 2.6 times higher than the same month in 2021, according to the Recruitment & Employment Confederation, a trade body that tracks labour market data.

Labour has said it intends to fund its expansion plan, which will use space capacity in school buildings, with capital expenditure. However, health policy experts said a future government needed to first overhaul its workforce plan.

“We’ve had quite a few years of successive governments sticking their head in the sand when it comes to the early years workforce,” said Sarah Ronan, director of Early Education and Childcare Coalition, an advocacy group. “The next government can’t afford to do that.

“In order to attract people into the sector and, importantly, keep them there you need to offer a decent wage, training and progression,” she added. “It’s not rocket science.”

Generally wages in the sector are set at or around minimum and living wages. “More and more staff are on benefits and leaving because they can earn more money stacking supermarket shelves,” Leitch said.

Labour has said it is committed to creating a new workforce strategy for the sector within a year if it wins power.

To attract people to the profession, the Conservative government has already launched a pilot scheme offering £1,000 sign-on bonuses to nurseries in the most stretched parts of England.

“Only the Conservatives have a clear plan for parents by delivering the largest ever expansion of childcare, providing eligible working parents with 30 hours of free childcare,” a Tory party spokesperson said.

“We are also giving the childcare sector the certainty they need to expand by increasing funding rates over the next two years by approximately £500mn.”

About 55 per cent of under-fives lived in neighbourhoods with fewer than 25 accessible places per 100 children last year, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. The figures were based on Ofsted-registered childcare places, which make up four-fifths of the market.

St Albans in Hertfordshire had the best childcare access, with 43 places per 100 children, compared with 12 in Torridge in north Devon and the West Midlands local authority Walsall, which had the most limited provision.

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