‘It feels like a sinking ship’: inside Britain’s struggling nurseries

With soaring fees for parents and staff leaving to take better paid work in supermarkets, the early-years education sector is crumbling – and it is putting our children’s futures at risk

By Baker Johnson


‘It’s the kind of work that is hard to leave behind at the end of the day’ … a nursery assistant plays with a child at Central Children’s Centre in Grimsby. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

It is 9am and nursery manager Michelle Shaw is in her office, eating toast at her desk as a buzzer repeatedly blares. She reaches above her head to lift a phone receiver. “Push the gate,” she says between bites, as parents begin to drop off their children for the morning session. The buzzer goes again. “Push the gate,” she says. And again. “Push the gate”, “Push the gate”, her words now so rapid they are indecipherable.

Shaw has been working in early-years education for 32 years, and says she still loves her job. Petite and restless, she is constantly on the move, spotting and solving problems, responding to staff queries and requests, and engaging with parents and children – including a serious little boy clutching a handful of dinosaurs, who is forever finding his way to her cluttered office and into her arms.

This is the Central Children’s Centre on Edward Street in the north-east Lincolnshire coastal town of Grimsby, part of a chain of 13 nurseries run by an organisation called For Under Fives. Shaw’s staff work with allotted children, wearing earpieces fitted like bouncers, bags slung across their bodies to carry tablets on which they keep records and take photographs to share with families. Set in an old primary school, the nursery, with its well-worn toys, busy playground and pet guinea pig, is a vital hub for the community it serves.

In the main nursery space, a little girl with a ponytail dances to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl, while a withdrawn boy with long hair walks around holding a large plastic butterfly. Elsewhere toys are upturned, trolleys are pushed at speed, shoes are thrown off and an old piano gets a fair bit of attention. At a table, a member of staff hands out pieces of toast to children who stand silently eating around the table. Some will not have had breakfast.


Michelle Shaw: ‘Covid has had a big impact. You can see it straight away with these children that something needs addressing and that puts extra pressure on staff.’ Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

There are constant, quiet exchanges between staff. Who needs changing? Who has fallen over? Has the accident been logged? Can you check those bruises? Some of the children are vulnerable, their families affected by poverty, substance abuse and domestic violence. It’s the kind of work that is hard to leave behind at the end of the day. “I do worry about them,” says one member of staff.

They are also seeing first-hand the impact of lockdowns and social isolation on children’s development. Speech and language are delayed, more children appear to have special educational needs, they are taking longer to get out of nappies – some are still not toilet trained by four – and many of them have found it hard to learn how to play with their peers. Shaw is worried some of them simply won’t cope with the move to primary school in September.

On the wall in the corridor there are weekly timetables with lists of goals for each child – one child has “to skip, hop and stand on one leg”, someone else has to help water the plants in the garden and feed the guinea pig, another child’s challenge is to “talk about emotions and recognise when happy or sad”, another needs to “use longer sentences of four to six words”. In the staff toilet, the door is plastered with information on how to get an “outstanding” Ofsted rating.

Yet for all the commitment and care in the nursery, Shaw says the outlook for the sector has never felt so bleak. Nurseries around the country are losing staff to better paid work in Aldi and Amazon, and recruitment has dried up.

These are women who are earning £735 a month. Nursery supervisor Sharon Biglin, who has a degree in early-years education, is earning just £11,000 a year. She stays because she loves the work, but others can’t afford to.


Sharon Biglin with the children. She stays because she loves the work, but others can’t afford to. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

The problems stem from a shortfall in government funding. All 72 children on roll – who are predominantly white British with a small number of Latvian and Polish children – are funded by the government’s free 15-hour childcare offer as most parents are unemployed (working parents with three and four-year-olds get 30 hours a week of government-funded childcare over 38 weeks). The government pays Shaw £4.41 an hour for each three- and four-year-old, and £5.37 for every two-year-old, but it costs her £5.90 a child an hour to run the nursery. Other early-years settings in the area are helping to cover the shortfall by introducing an additional “consumable rate” of £7 a day to cover snacks and drinks. “We can’t do that,” says Shaw. “Our parents can’t afford to pay.”

The nursery only gets by because it is part of a chain which includes settings in more affluent areas where charges for extra hours, food and drinks bring in additional money that can be used to subsidise poorer settings. Others, however, are going to the wall.

According to government figures published in June, between 1 April 2021 and 31 March 2022, there was a net overall decrease of approximately 4,000 childcare providers, including childminders, nurseries and other providers of care for 0-5-year-olds – this was the largest decline since 2015–16. Since August 2015, the number of providers has fallen by 19,100 or 22%. A campaign group called Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding set up to highlight problems in the sector is garnering support from nursery owners and managers across the country. The government, they say, wants a high-quality early-years sector, but is not providing sufficient money to fund it.

Heneage ward, where the Central Children’s Centre is situated, is among the most deprived 10% of wards in England. Much of the terrace housing that surrounds the nursery is rundown and poorly maintained, and many families depend on food banks; the staff room at the nursery is littered with bags of donated food, snacks and drinks from the FareShare charity.

A basket of groceries is left in the corridor for parents to pick up extras – Shaw times it carefully to make sure everyone who needs it gets something. She and her team are not just nursery workers, they’re counsellors, social workers, benefits and housing advisers and a shoulder to cry on.


‘We are not doing what is best for our children’ … two young boys play at Central Children’s Centre. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

One mother of three, who was forced to flee a relationship because of domestic violence, said life had become very hard with soaring bills and food costs. Picking up her child, she said her gas bill has jumped from £95 a month to £170. “It’s hard. Sometimes, it does get you down. This is one place I know I can come to for help. But I don’t like asking. I would rather struggle than ask.”

Lunch is £2, which some parents still struggle to afford. A US charity called Vitamin Angels has been a godsend, supplying more than £100 worth of fruit and vegetables every week, which keeps food costs down. Anything left over is put in the parents’ basket.

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, said the problems in the childcare sector are complex and long-running. “The pandemic has exposed underlying weaknesses in a sector, that was just about getting by, and it’s the straw that is starting to break the camel’s back,” she says.

The early-years education sector in England spans a huge range of providers. There are the expensive, privately run daycare centres in affluent areas, such as the exclusive Maggie & Rose chain, which has nurseries in London (the Kensington nursery charges £490 for five morning sessions 8am-2pm), to local authority-run nurseries with long waiting lists, voluntary-run settings, and then the vast numbers of small, privately run nurseries. It’s here, says Merrick, “where there is huge amounts of precariousness and closures”.

For parents, it’s a minefield – and one that is forcing mothers to leave the job market. As nursery overheads go up, with increases in energy costs, national insurance and minimum wage, fees are also rising and many families can no longer afford them. Elsewhere, nurseries that are struggling to recruit are reducing the number of children they take or closing with little or no warning.


‘There are weekly timetables with lists of goals for each child.’ Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Emma Hull, a mother of three from Surrey, had her youngest son down for a local nursery until fees were put up for September and she realised she would be paying more for his care than she would be earning. Soon after, the nursery notified parents that they were having to close with immediate effect as they had lost too many members of staff. “Imagine the chaos for those families with kids at that nursery,” says Hull, who has since found a childminder to look after her son.

“It feels a bit like a sinking ship and everyone’s scrabbling to get hold of something they can afford,” she says. Another mother says: “I am about to go through the process for requesting part-time hours and if my company don’t give them to me I am going to quit, because I can’t afford the childcare.”

The campaigning charity Pregnant Then Screwed says some women are even seeking abortions because of childcare costs. The charity surveyed 1,630 women who have had an abortion in the past five years: 60.5% said the cost of childcare influenced their decision to have an abortion, while 17.4% said childcare costs were the main reason they chose to have an abortion.

The government recently announced plans to relax nursery staff-to-child ratios – from one adult looking after four two-year-olds, to one adult to five instead – to try to reduce the cost of childcare. It claimed that increasing the number of children each childcare worker is responsible for could save parents as much as £40 a week. Yet this has been dismissed as “incorrect” by the Early Years Alliance, a charity that supports members to deliver care and learning in England, and “absolute rubbish” by Pregnant Then Screwed.

“Childcare costs are pushing families into poverty and forcing women to terminate wanted pregnancies,” says Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed. “The UK has the most expensive childcare in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as a proportion of women’s earnings, and the recent government proposal to increase ratios will have little to no impact on costs; instead it will only serve to create a lower quality system, further deterring women from using our childcare provision.” Shaw and her team agree it’s simply not viable.

On the opposite coast from Grimsby is Monkton nursery school in Liverpool, which was set up in 1980 by owner Sue Poole. The parents here are professionals – doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers – and the fees they pay fund eight qualified early-years teachers, with the nursery open 51 weeks a year to help working parents, and offering luxury extras such as birthday and Christmas gifts for every child, acrobats, gymnasts and a visiting farm. Yet Poole is seeing costs soar too, which she will – reluctantly – have to pass on through increased fees. “I don’t know whether we will lose parents,” she says.

Like Shaw, she is concerned about the increasing number of children with special educational needs coming through. They need more one-to-one support but getting additional funding through education, health and care plans (EHCP) is difficult and time-consuming. Once an EHCP is approved, it can still take months of chasing to secure the funding to which a child is entitled.

“Covid has had a big impact,” says Shaw. “Children didn’t go to groups during lockdown, they were not seen by health visitors or children’s centre hubs. Things that would have been picked up earlier were not picked up. You can see it straight away with these children that something needs addressing. And that puts extra pressure on staff.”

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, is stark in her assessment. “The early-years sector is in crisis,” she says. “Although nurseries have been struggling to recruit for many years, the situation is now dire and getting worse. As the workforce shrinks, existing staff are becoming more stressed and overstretched. We are hearing of skilled workers leaving for jobs such as supermarket roles due to better pay and less responsibility. Many of our members are already having to turn away children for sessions if they don’t have enough staff.

“The answer is simple: governments must invest sufficiently in early-years education and care. It improves children’s outcomes, saves money in their later education, boosts the economy and gives every child the best chance in life.

“Reducing staff ratios makes no sense at a time when these same children are coming into nursery with delayed language and social skills resulting from pandemic restrictions and lockdowns.” she says. “Not only will this not save costs, it could result in these children having less support, rather than more.”

A government spokesperson, however, defended the Conservatives’ record on early-years education: “We have spent more than £4bn in each of the past five years to support families with the cost of childcare. The number of childcare places available is stable and thousands of parents are benefiting from this support.

“We know there are challenges facing the sector, which is why we are increasing funding to support employers with their costs, investing millions in better training for staff working with preschool children, and have set out plans to help providers run their businesses more flexibly.”

Shaw is frustrated by the government’s posturing. “We are not doing what is best for our children,” she says. “Children are supposed to be the most precious things you can have. The first three or four years of a child’s life are the most important. But we aren’t paying the people who are looking after them what they deserve – we are paying people who work in Tesco and Aldi more.”


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