‘On the brink of collapse’ — the crisis hitting London’s nurseries

When Kristina Dooley, 36, from Uxbridge, returned to her job in the City after maternity leave, she found her son, Alex, a place at a private nursery. When that closed after a year due to staff shortages she was relieved to get him into Uxbridge Early Years Centre. Now this nursery has announced it will shut at the end of December. “We received an email out of the blue in August saying the nursery was in financial deficit and they were taking emergency measures to close it,” she says. “I just thought ‘Not again!’”

Uxbridge Early Years is one of three nurseries closing in the area and it’s happening across the capital. Four thousand early childcare providers in the UK have shut in the last year due to chronic underfunding, rising energy and running costs and staff shortages.

A 2021 report from the Mayor’s office found that two thirds of London’s nurseries faced closure — and the most disadvantaged areas of the capital were the hardest hit, with 70 per cent of nurseries in more deprived boroughs describing themselves as “struggling”.

“Inflation and high food and energy costs are hitting nurseries particularly hard right now,” explains Jonathan Broadbery, the director of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA). “They cost as much to run as a school, and yet unlike schools they have to pay business rates. The average nursery pays £12,600, but London nurseries will be paying even more because it’s calculated on the value of your property.

“In Scotland and Wales nurseries are exempt from this tax and they should be here too. Nurseries need urgent support in this cost-of-living crisis just as other businesses received during Covid.”

Kristina Dooley with her son Alex

/ Kristina Dooley

“For years now we have been warning the Government that the childcare sector is on the brink of collapse — that is what we are witnessing right now,” says Joeli Brearley, chief executive and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed. “Childcare providers are closing at a rate we have never seen before. We are being inundated with messages from frantic mothers who are being forced to leave their job as a result, thrusting more families into poverty. If their local childcare provider closes, it is almost impossible to find suitable childcare elsewhere, with our data showing that 41 per cent of parents say there is at least a six-month waiting list for other options.”

City worker Kristina continues: “Most of the other nurseries in the area are full. I just want to be able to go to the office and know that my child is happy and safe. We currently pay £650 a month for three days a week — we’re lucky that my mum can help out the other days. My brother lives in Sweden and pays £100 a month to send his child to nursery. They’re expecting a second baby but we couldn’t even think about that here with the amount we spend on childcare.”

Indeed, Britain has the second most expensive childcare in the world: more than 35 per cent of the average family’s income. So why are London’s nurseries unable to turn a profit? “The Government grossly under-funds its early years schemes which means there’s a massive shortfall,” says Broadbery of the NDNA. “Parents of children aged three and four get 15 or 30 hours’ free childcare for 38 weeks of the year, and some parents of two-year-olds can also get free hours, but 95 per cent of our members tell us the funding they receive for these places doesn’t cover their costs. Seven London boroughs didn’t get any increase in funding this year, and when costs go up and funding stays flat that equals a cut.”

Caroline El-Semman is the co-director of Little Jungle nursery in Peckham. She says that while underfunding has long been an issue, it’s the difficulty recruiting staff which is her main concern. “It’s getting harder and harder to recruit good quality, experienced staff members,” she says. “Early years childcare is just not valued as a profession in this country. A lot of staff leave and go and work in Tesco or an Amazon warehouse where they get paid more and have less responsibility.

“We used to recruit a lot of staff who were trained on the Continent but Brexit and the pandemic have made that harder. For the last 18 months all I’ve been doing is recruitment and it’s exhausting and costly. I hate getting calls from desperate parents, but the reality is we have 400 children on our waiting list.”

I hate getting calls from desperate parents, but the reality is we have 400 children on our waiting list

Emily Pointer, a 33-year-old personal trainer from Chessington knows all about the desperate ring around. “We had just two weeks’ notice that our daughter’s nursery was closing and a lot of the good ones in our area are fully-booked until 2024,” she says. “It’s been really stressful because my partner and I are both self-employed and we have no family nearby who can help. Eventually we found something, but it’s heartbreaking because Olive had made friends.”

Su Stevens, 32, a civil servant from Hillingdon is in the same boat. Her 11-month-old son Sufyan was due to start at Uxbridge Early Years Centre this month, when she returned to work, but now she’s been left “scrambling” on her maternity leave to find another option. “Lots of places have years-long waiting lists and huge registration fees.”

But frustrated parents are taking action. Alex Sim, 38, an NHS mental health worker, is one of the parents who has helped set up a petition to save the Uxbridge nurseries and is in talks to take legal action to ask for the decision to be put under judicial review. “These nurseries are a vital resource for our community,” he says. “It’s shocking that they would close them without consulting parents or proposing alternatives.”

On Friday Alex and a group of other parents were due to meet with their MP — who happens to be Boris Johnson — to ask why these nurseries are being shut down. But at the last minute his spokesman cancelled because “another priority came up”. “We’re really keen to speak to him because obviously the deadline is fast approaching,” says Alex. “If anything can be done to save our nurseries it needs to be done now.” There is hope, however.

Last year parents in Hackney successfully campaigned to reverse the decision to close two nurseries — Ferndale and Hillside Children’s Centre. Nick Yates, 36, is a teacher and the father of Martha, three, who attended Ferndale. “I started the campaign out of rage but I didn’t ever really think we would win because I assumed the council had a solid case,” he says. “But when we dug deeper I couldn’t believe how little thought and planning had gone into this decision to close these nurseries.” After protesting at City Hall and crowdfunding to cover legal fees, last November the council agreed to “pause” the closures.

MPs including Shadow Secretary of State for Education Kate Green and MP Tulip Siddiq join staff from maintained nursery schools in England calling for increased funding as they gather with parents in Parliament Square

/ Alamy Stock Photo

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, says an independent review of early education is needed. “There’s currently no strategy whatsoever,” he says. Indeed, when government plans to relax the ratio of staff to children were leaked in July it caused an outcry. “What kind of dimwit would ask for staff to look after more children when they’re already stretched so thin and leaving in droves?” he asks. “When we get early years education wrong it costs society as a whole an absolute fortune — in healthcare, in crime.”

For the first time in decades, the number of young women not working to look after family is starting to rise. A study from Pregnant Then Screwed found that 43 per cent of mothers were considering leaving their jobs due to the cost and availability of childcare. The childcare crisis is pushing women out of work and could soon push parents out of London. Nick Yates and his family moved from Hackney to Manchester last week: “We’re expecting a second baby and we just couldn’t afford the childcare.”

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