'Complete Devastation': This Is The Real-Time Impact Of Nursery Closures

"They are an extension of our family," says one mum of her child's nursery – now closing at short notice.
Daniel Balakov via Getty Images

For many parents, there’s nothing more anxiety-inducing than trusting a complete stranger to care for your child when you return to work.

It’s a huge leap of faith. And when parents do find that safe space – whether a nursery, childminder or nanny – the people who care for your children quickly become like your second family.

They care for your children when they’re sick, they teach your kids good values and some will watch lovingly as your tiny offspring take their first steps. Your children will see these people day in day out. So when that childcare is taken away – sometimes overnight – it can be genuinely heartbreaking for all involved.

This is the reality many families are facing. The overall number of childcare providers in England has faced a staggering decline in recent times, dropping by around 4,000 between March 2021 and March 2022, according to figures from Ofsted.

And as the cost of living crisis deepens, it’s likely more nurseries and childminders will have to close their doors, disrupting children’s lives, leaving nursery staff out of work and forcing parents – particularly women – to make alternative arrangements for their children.

For some it will mean having to quit their jobs.

Mum-of-two Laura Dabbs, 39, from Uxbridge, recently found out her local council are closing the early years centre her children attend. It is one of three local council-run centres being closed in the area by the end of the year.

Her daughter, who is three-and-a-half, has been there since she was one and she and her husband were planning on sending their three-month-old son there, too.

When they were notified by email that the nursery was due to close, Dabbs says the couple were ”absolutely gobsmacked”.

″Complete devastation,” she says of their reaction. “It’s not just a provider for childcare: we see them every day, they pick up our kids, they hug our kids when they’re hurt – they are an extension of our family.

“I can’t bear the thought of them not being there.”

The family are in the process of moving out of Uxbridge to Cookham – and even questioned whether they should move because the nursery is so great.

They decided to go ahead with the move and drive the 30 minutes to the centre each day so as not to disrupt their children’s lives, and because they love the setting – and the staff – so much.

But Dabbs and her husband are now having to make alternative arrangements for their children. Come January 2023, her eldest daughter will be going to a local preschool while their son will have to go to a childminder, she says.

They’re currently paying a day rate of £53, but childminder fees where they’re moving to can range anywhere from £75-£120 a day, she says. For a month of full-time childcare, that’s a minimum of £1,500 for just one child. And with her daughter attending preschool, she’ll need to find extra childcare provision during the holidays, which will again cost more.

“It’s really difficult and just really heartbreaking,” adds Dabbs.

Edwin Tan via Getty Images

Orest Bakhovski, also from Uxbridge, is now on the hunt for a new nursery for his two children, aged three and eight months old, because of the closures. But he’s facing fierce competition as hundreds of other parents impacted by the closures scrabble for alternative arrangements, in what is an already crowded market – some waiting lists for local nurseries can be up to two years long.

The 35-year-old manager at a telecoms company told PA Media: “I think for a lot of parents it’s quite a lot of stress because, outside of just purely the cost argument, it’s a scramble to find a nursery place and maybe more so for other parents than us, but it’s a real debate about ‘actually do both partners continue working or just one partner stay at home?’”

He added it was a “slap in the face” amid the current cost of living crisis.

Parents in the UK face some of the most expensive childcare costs among leading economies, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Yet nursery staff earn low wages – the average salary is £21,000, according to Total Jobs. Something, somewhere, is going very wrong.

A report to Hillingdon Council said the three early years centres in the area were recommended for closure as they were operating at a £532,000 loss “despite several attempts to improve their viability” and that “the wider early years market can absorb the provision directly provided by the council”.

“It’s a scramble to find a nursery place... a real debate about ‘actually do both partners continue working or just one partner stay at home?’”

- Orest Bakhovski, dad-of-two

But it’s not just a case of whether there’s “any old nursery” available. Parents want reassurance the childcare setting their children move to will be of the same quality and that staff will take just as good care of their offspring.

Dabbs says parents would be more than happy to help find a way for the local nurseries to remain open and financially viable, whether that’s through parents providing their own catering or increasing day rates.

Some of the routes Hillingdon council has taken to try and make the nurseries financially viable include re-negotiating corporate cleaning and catering contracts and reviews of staffing structures. A spokesperson for the council tells HuffPost UK parental fees were also increased by around 5% in May.

However, the changes have not delivered “savings sufficient to improve financial viability”.

“Our Families Information Service is supporting parents to look for alternative options for childcare and the nursery staff will support children and families as they transition to new providers,” they add.

Jon Vallejo via Getty Images

After growing warnings from childcare organisations about the escalating childcare crisis, the UK government has recognised that families, and in particular women, are struggling to return to work due to the high costs of putting children into paid care.

In July it set out new plans to “ensure high-quality and affordable childcare is accessible to all”. These include taking action to open up the childminder market as well as the controversial proposal to change staff-to-child ratios so that a member of staff can look after up to five two-year-olds (compared to four, which is currently allowed).

The idea is that nurseries wouldn’t have to close as staff could look after more children, but parents worry this will be the nail in the coffin for those staff left behind, who are already overworked and underpaid. A petition against the move also suggests it could “potentially endanger children in trusted care”.

Laura, who preferred not to share her surname, lives in Bookham, Surrey, with her husband and two daughters aged one and four.

“Of all the members of staff that I’ve spoken to at our nursery ... if they change the ratio, so they have more children to look after, I haven’t heard one of them say that they’d stay,” she tells HuffPost UK.

Between December 2021 and July 2022, Laura says there have been seven closures at the nursery her children attend which they’ve been notified of the night before. The provider has also had to partially close over the summer holidays – all due to staffing issues.

Dobrila Vignjevic via Getty Images

Explaining how she navigates these very last-minute changes in childcare provision, she says: “It really makes you torn because the immediate thing is to try and work out how you’re going to fulfil your obligations as an employee for the week – and then you think: the disruption to the children is massive. They really enjoy their time at preschool and they’re losing out on that as well.

“It’s a really horrible feeling of everything being unstable. As a working parent, you’ve got plates spinning and everything just sort of hangs together – and both me and my husband work full-time, so that means everything just about works.

“And then you get that message [saying nursery is closed] and it’s all gone, it all crashes. And the thing is, we pay so much money for it as well. An expensive childcare system is one thing, but expensive and unreliable – it can’t keep working parents in employment. It just doesn’t work.”

She’s now used up her paid dependency leave from work and so her choice is either to take unpaid leave, annual leave (which she doesn’t have much of) or for her and her husband to try and juggle childcare for the next six weeks while working from home.

They’ve opted for the latter, which often means working evenings and weekends to make up for what they haven’t achieved during the day.

“It’s a really horrible feeling of everything being unstable. As a working parent, you’ve got plates spinning and everything just sort of hangs together ... And then you get that message and it’s all gone, it all crashes.”

- Laura, mum-of-two

Ultimately, it’s women who will be most impacted by the deepening crisis facing the childcare sector, unless action – such as a huge injection of cash – is taken now.

“It’ll just end up with more parents – more mums, to be honest – not going back to work and they’ll lose all of that talent from the workforce,” says Laura.

“It’s mostly going to affect women,” adds Dabbs. “Let’s be realistic, it’s normally the mums that stay at home, isn’t it? So it’s going to be at a detriment to people’s careers. It’s just unfair.”

Campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed has said it’s been “inundated” in the last week with messages from “frantic” mothers who have received notice that their nurseries are having to close due to financial issues.

“This is jeopardising their careers, their finances and their child’s education but it isn’t a surprise to us,” said a charity spokesperson.

The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) attributes a combination of government underfunding, inflation and increased costs and recruitment barriers to many settings closing down. The Guardian reported that nurseries around the country are losing staff to the likes of Aldi and Amazon, who pay better.

Chief executive Liz Bayram said “it is a disgrace” that nurseries “are being left high and dry with dwindling staff numbers and chronic underfunding in the middle of a cost of living crisis”.

Parents of children aged three and four years old can get 30 hours of free childcare per week, over 38 weeks of the year.

But a March 2022 survey by the Early Years Alliance, of around 2,000 childcare providers, found that for 86% of settings, funding for the three- and four-year-old early entitlement scheme does not cover the cost of delivering places – and around a third (30%) of the providers surveyed said they’re operating at a loss.

“We remain completely baffled how, despite the financial impact this is having on providers and parents, we are yet to hear a credible plan to tackle the early years crisis from either prime ministerial candidate,” said Pregnant Then Screwed’s spokesperson.

Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, said it has been warning of an early years crisis for years now – “and sadly this is becoming a reality”.

“Rather than looking at steps it could take to support the early years, the government is currently wasting time looking at relaxing staff:child ratios despite the fact that this will worsen the recruitment crisis and will not lower costs for parents,” he said.

“We need a clear strategy for the early years – one that recognises the vital importance of the first years of a child’s life and provides the substantial investment needed to keep our sector sustainable.”

A government spokesperson told HuffPost UK they have spent more than £4 billion in each of the past five years to support families with the cost of childcare and that the number of childcare places available “remains stable, as it has since 2015, and thousands of parents are benefitting 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 pre-school children and have set out plans to help providers run their businesses more flexibly,” they said. “This includes plans to support more childminders into the market by reducing upfront costs.”

Parents agree that everyone – even those without children – need to be aware of the deepening childcare crisis moving forward.

“If it doesn’t impact you I don’t think you realise how bad it is,” says Laura. “But you don’t have to be a parent [to be impacted]. You have to just employ a parent – or be like my poor colleagues who have to work with one – and it’s impacting everyone really.”