Lack of data makes government claims about English childcare ‘meaningless’

·3-min read

The government’s claims that there are enough childcare places in England are “meaningless” as councils collect little to no information on whether provision meets local demand, experts have said.

Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that the provision of childcare is sufficient to meet the requirements of parents in their area under section 6 of the Childcare Act 2006.

In February the minister for children, Claire Coutinho, said in a parliamentary written answer: “The department has regular contact with each local authority in England, and if a local authority raises concerns about sufficiency issues, we will support it with any specific requirements. At present, all local authorities report that they are fulfilling their duty to ensure sufficient childcare.”

But data obtained by the Early Years Alliance shows that only 15% of local councils in England collect data on the proportion of parents who are able to access the childcare they need.

Last week, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced a change to the way childcare would be funded, confirming a £4bn expansion of support from 2025, and announced “an ambition” for all state primaries to provide childcare before and after lessons from 2026.

Pitched as part of a wider drive to help people into work and boost growth, the plan will provide an extra 30 hours a week during term time to parents of children from the age of nine months to two years, matching the existing offering for three- and four-year-olds.

Campaigners say more knowledge is needed about how many facilities are able to offer local services and where the gaps are, which leave parents unable to find nurseries, childminders and other support when they need it.

The Early Years Alliance data, obtained via freedom of information, also shows 14% of local authorities gather information on whether parents can access childcare on the times and dates they want, and only one in 10 of the local councils collect the same information for children with special educational needs or disabilities.

This lack of knowledge of the state of the childcare and early-years system meant “any government claims of sufficient places are utterly meaningless in practical terms”, Neil Leitch, the Alliance’s chief executive, said.

“If you’re a parent who, say, needs a nursery, preschool or childminding place for four days a week, but can only secure one day a week, and it’s at a setting 25 minutes away, then constant assurances from government that all is fine are understandably going to ring completely hollow – and this is exactly the sort of situation that families up and down the country are currently facing.”

A separate analysis by the children’s charity Coram also shows gaps in the knowledge of childcare provision in some local authorities in England.

More than half of the councils did not have data on whether they had sufficient places to meet the after-school childcare needs of parents with children aged 12 to 14 years olds.

Almost 40% of the councils could not say whether they had enough provision to support parents working atypical hours. And around a third did not answer the question on sufficiency for disabled children or parents who needed after-school care for children aged five to 11.

Joeli Brearley, the founder of the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, said: “We need to see a strong commitment from the government to rebuilding the sector sustainably if we are to increase the number of parents in work. Unfortunately, the amount of money pledged to fund the free hours entitlement is nowhere near enough and so there is a strong possibility that we may lose even more nurseries as a result.”

A government spokesperson said: “Ofsted’s latest figures show that the number of childcare places available to families in England has remained broadly stable since 2015 and standards remain high, with 96% of providers rated good or outstanding.

“We will continue to monitor the sufficiency of childcare places, and stay in close contact with local authorities on our transformational uplift in the hourly funding rate to providers.”