‘Major anxiety’: parents describe nightmare of England’s childcare crisis | Childcare

Dean Martin’s three-year-old son only started at nursery in September, but has settled in almost immediately. That is not surprising when you hear the phrase his father uses to describes the staff at the maintained nursery in Croydon: “Child whisperers.”

“They’re brilliant, highly qualified and absolutely fantastic with kids,” says Martin, who is 47 and an ecologist. “They’re not in it for the money – they love to help young children flourish.”

So, like many parents of young children in Croydon, Martin was devastated to learn last month that the council had launched a consultation to reduce the number of maintained nurseries in the London borough.

Almost a third of nurseries run by not-for-profit organisations have shut their doors in the poorest areas of England, a Guardian analysis of 18,000 childcare providers in England has revealed. The figures come against a backdrop of experts saying the childcare sector risks becoming a “playground for private equity”, with investment funds more than doubling their stake in the sector within a period of four years.

Meanwhile, the government’s plan to massively expand its free childcare provision has been labelled “undeliverable” by the sector, as hundreds of nurseries across England surveyed this summer said it would lead to a chronic shortage of places and parents having to pay.

Parents told the Guardian about their struggles to find places for their children, as nurseries shut amid funding shortfalls and staff shortages.

Jess Fleetwood with her children. Photograph: Guardian Community

If his son’s nursery were to shut, Martin, who is self-employed, says he would have to cut his working hours in order to care for him, alongside arranging provision from a childminder. He wants to avoid the private nursery route, as he felt his older son, who is now seven and is autistic, was not well supported. Private firms charge higher prices with less qualified staff, research from University College London shows.

“I’ve experienced major anxiety over the consultation. It’s hugely stressful not knowing how long we will have childcare for,” says Martin. He emphasises that his family is in a relatively lucky position, compared with others in the area. “A closure would make life difficult for us, but we could just about afford an alternative until our boy goes to reception. Other families definitely couldn’t.

“It’s about the community we want to live in as well. Our boy was a Covid baby – he missed out very young. We want to live in a community where people can flourish, where we look after them in those early years.”

For solo parents, being left without a nursery cuts even deeper. After the private nursery Jen Rush, 39, was sending her three-year-old daughter to shut in August, the family is planning to move away from Llangollen, north Wales, where Rush has lived for eight years, in search of better early years provision. Her husband died last summer, and Rush had been preparing to return to work – but a lack of robust childcare has complicated the transition.

“As the only parent, I can’t afford to work anything less than full-time,” she says, explaining that she has struggled to find provision close by, with one nursery she would consider involving a two-hour round trip daily while another provider had no availability. “Ultimately I have decided to sell up and relocate from a town I love, and the place I built a home with my late husband. Reliable, full-time childcare is imperative for me, and I will now be moving based on the availability of this.”

Rush, who is a marketing and communications professional, is having her house valued and is looking into a local playgroup as a stopgap while she applies for jobs and freelance work. She describes the catch-22 around work and the childcare crisis – a vicious cycle familiar to many women, and particularly single parents.

“Right now, 18 hours [weekly] in a playgroup is the most I can afford. As a solo parent with no family in the area, it just can’t function, I can’t work enough hours to support her on my own. There’s no infrastructure in the town any more for me to cope. Some people manage to negotiate their hours with work because they’re in a couple – but when you’re on your own, there’s no one else you can mitigate it with.”

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Her daughter has struggled with losing the stability and comfort her nursery offered. “My daughter is only three and learning to cope with the loss of her dad. She now has to come to terms with the loss of a nursery and contact with the staff she loved, and who provided a great deal of stability during her dad’s illness, decline and death. It was a bit like another loss for her.”

For Jess Fleetwood in Yeovil, her two-year-old’s nursery closure at the end of September meant she and her husband have had to adjust their working hours, resulting in lost income. Fleetwood has found another private nursery to take her daughter, but it has not been easy. “I can’t tell you how many we called around,” she says. “We got lucky there was one with enough space.”

Although the couple are happy with the new nursery, it is further away and has come at an additional financial hit of about £400 a month. That is partly due to the fees and hours, but also because the different timetable means Fleetwood’s husband, an engineer, is missing out on “a couple hundred” in overtime payments every month in order to pick up his daughter.

It is important to Fleetwood, who works part-time for a charity, that she continues to work alongside raising her two daughters. “For my mental health, I want to be a working mum, and for them to see their mum and dad [both] going to work,” she says, explaining that her employer has been supportive. “It’s worthwhile, even if we only have a couple hundred pounds left over after paying the nursery bill.”

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