Childminders are giving up their careers as their businesses struggle to compete with big nurseries for government-subsidised work, HuffPost UK can reveal.
Twice as many childminders have left than joined the profession since 2012, with a total of 13,426 dropping off the Ofsted register altogether, a series of parliamentary questions by Labour MP Lucy Powell has uncovered.
Calls are now being made for ministers to offer childminders more support to keep their unique micro-businesses viable.
The government doubled families’ free childcare entitlement to 30 hours-a-week in 2017 - but childminders say the policy is pushing them out of the market as large nursery chains are absorbing the bulk of the extra work.
Local authorities set hourly rates, but even the top tier allowed by central government is estimated to be 39p below the true cost of childcare.
Childminders, who usually work from home rather than at a nursery, face even greater costs but can levy additional charges for materials such as nappies.
However, parents can ultimately choose not to pay the charges and childminders say they face a battle to keep their businesses alive.
Childminder Sue Smith, who works in Essex, is one of many trying to make ends meet.
“Often working alone and with a small number of children, a childminder is in a position to give more focus to children’s interests and provide care that is spontaneous, interesting, varied and fun and which uniquely supports a child’s individual learning,” said Smith, a 52-year-old mum-of-two.
“But, when money is tight, parents make decisions based on finances and the ethos behind caring for a child in a home environment pales into insignificance.
“Because of inadequate hourly funding offered by the government, we have to consider taking a cut in our income and that is putting our sustainability into question.
“We are finding that nurseries are more sustainable than childminding businesses, because they are big operations which can cater for large groups in a more economical way.
“The loophole around the ‘extra charges’ is also a questionable benefit for us. We are uncertain what we can charge for and, at the end of the day, parents have a choice as to whether or not they agree to pay, which leaves us with a cash shortfall once more.
“We are left with the choice between earning less than our hourly rate, or losing business to nurseries or other childminders.”
The decline comes despite former education minister Liz Truss pledging in 2013 to set up childminder agencies in all local areas.
Eleven have since been established and just six of those have childminders enrolled.
Meanwhile, research by the Family and Childcare Trust research shows the cost of a childminder has risen by a third since 2010. It found that families with under-twos are paying £27.61 more per week and families with children over two are paying £26.95 more.
Children’s Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the government has invested £3.4m in the Childcare Business Grant Scheme, which is aimed at helping childminders set up shop.
But Lucy Powell said the drop-off in registered practitioners showed the government has no effective strategy for retaining childminders.
She said: “This crisis in childminders shows the market is broken, making life more difficult for families and pushing up the cost of childcare for parents.”
Shadow Early Years Minister Tracy Brabin added: “For all of the government’s warm words about their progress on early years, they haven’t been able to explain such a dramatic fall in childminders.
“Ministers should look again at why so many experienced childminders are leaving the sector on their watch as parents should be assured that they will be able to find a childminder when they need one.”
PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years) chief executive, Liz Bayram, said their members tell them the main reason they leave childminding is lack of demand.
“Childminding is a challenging but rewarding role; you are running your own micro-business; providing education for young children, managing paperwork and working in partnership with many other professionals,” she said.
“Often, you do this all on your own and, without support and the opportunity to earn a reasonable income, we are going to see less and less people see this fantastic role as one they want to do.”
Ellen Broomé, chief executive of Family and Childcare Trust, added: “Childminders provide a crucial part of the childcare market and so it is concerning to see so many leaving the profession.
“Only half of local areas have enough childcare for working parents. In order to give parents choices about working and caring, central and local governments must take action to support and recognise these important childcare professionals so that every family can find the childcare that they need.”
The government said it was trying to make setting up a childminding business easier, including allowing people to operate half of the time at a nursery.
Zahawi said: “This government wants all children to be able to access high-quality, affordable early education and childcare which is why we are spending more on childcare than any other government – around £6 billion a year by 2020. This includes an additional £1 billion a year to deliver 30 hours free childcare to families.
“We want to help more childminders enter the profession, which is why we have invested £3.4million through the Childcare Business Grant Scheme to help with the cost of setting up new childminding businesses.
“The scheme has supported almost 3,500 new childminders to get started since 2016. On top of this, we are helping existing childminders to develop their business skills and forge partnerships with schools so that more people can benefit from this rewarding job.”