London is the most densely-populated part of the UK. More than 591,000 under-fives live within its 14 inner and 19 outer boroughs. More than a third of its residents were born outside the UK. In terms of GDP, London is the fifth richest city in the world, yet it has the highest poverty rate in England at 37 per cent. However, the number of children achieving a good overall Early Years Foundation Stage level of development is 53 per cent, just above the 52 per cent national average.
Childcare costs in the capital are an average of 25 per cent higher than elsewhere in Britain, says the Family and Childcare Trust. Head of policy and research Jill Rutter says London childcare costs on average £104 a week for 25 hours.
'A lot of parents find the cost of childcare in London means working is not economically viable,' she says. 'About 1.4 million jobs are in sectors where employment regularly falls out of office hours.' Ms Rutter says this problem is exacerbated by high numbers of immigrants from the rest of the UK and abroad, as they cannot rely on grandparents.
London has struggled to create capacity for the free entitlement for disadvantaged twos. It has a greater share of eligible children than any other region - about 28,800 in 2013 and 55,100 in 2014. Government results published in November showed 70 per cent of places nationally had been filled since the scheme's launch in September, but Ms Rutter says current levels are lower in some London boroughs.
Achieving Two Year Olds national support director James Hempsall says lack of physical space, high costs and population growth have proved challenging. 'There are examples of good practice in terms of place development - in Waltham Forest,, for example, where the local authority has worked with faith groups to develop provision in halls,' he says.
London has 257 children's centres, according to the Greater London Authority. Of these, 78 per cent are rated good or outstanding. However, centre numbers have dropped in recent years. Figures published by Labour in January suggested 126 Sure Start centres had closed since 2010.
Southwark, with a population of more than 20,700 under-fives, has kept its 17 children's centres open by merging some under a single manager. With a child poverty rate of 24 per cent, the authority focuses services on the most deprived. Most centres do not offer childcare.
'Centres provide access to health services, advice, training for adults, parenting programmes and stay-and-play groups to prevent parents feeling isolated and promote children's language,' says cabinet member for children's services Dora Dixon-Fyle. 'What is different about the way they operate now is that under the new Ofsted framework centres put more emphasis on targeting priority families, including those involved with social care or the early help service.'
Hammersmith and Fulham also kept its children's centres open and created a new one, bringing the total to 16. From April 2011, six of the centres became hubs. While all continue to receive local government funding, they are now run by schools or voluntary organisations. For example, Ray's Playhouse children's centre is managed by parents and funded by local businesses and trusts. Helen Binmore, cabinet member for children's services, says the model was the most 'effective and efficient way to keep the centres open'.
The other extreme is the City of London - the capital's smallest borough with only 236 under-fives. Its single children's centre has existed as a childcare service since 1986. The Cass Child and Family Centre has 44 places for babies to five-year-olds, including space for the six disadvantaged two-year-olds identified as eligible for the free entitlement.
The City of London is England's commercial and financial heart, but Cass Child and Family Centre head Andy Dobson says its population is diverse. 'We have two housing estates that have issues with poverty,' he says. 'In a way, they are more marginalised because people don't think they exist.'
The centre uses a tiered approach when allocating places. Many city workers enquire about care, but residents and low-income families are prioritised. Workers can use the borough's six private, voluntary and independent (PVI) settings or workplace nurseries.
Think tank London Councils estimates the city has about 2,500 PVI nurseries, 1,300 primary schools with nurseries, 80 local authority-run nurseries, and about 9,700 childminders.
The London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) operates 24 nurseries in the capital. Director of business development Louise Cooper says location is one of the most important factors when meeting local needs. 'About 95 per cent of our parents walk or get the bus with their children to nursery, then may go straight to work,' she says.
LEYF also tries to bridge the gap between rich and poor by locating its nurseries on boundaries between pockets of deprivation and affluence within boroughs.
Nursery chain Kiddi Caru has two nurseries in London. Marketing manager Caron Moseley says marked differences exist between the support the settings receive from their respective local authorities of Lambeth and Hammersmith and Fulham.
The nurseries are open from 6:30am to 7:30pm. About 65 per cent of the children are full time - higher than any of the chain's outer-London settings.
Active Learning Childcare (below) has seven London nurseries. Since 2006, it has provided premium care, with qualified teachers offering cultural arts and sports education in purpose-built studios. Chief executive Amanda Johnson says only Londoners would be able to afford the fees for such services. 'Everything is included in our fees, so we are good value for money,' she says. 'You pay absolutely nothing else for ballet, yoga, sport and French.' Nursery children also learn rugby and have performed an opera.
Ms Johnson says places are in high demand. 'It's a very competitive school market in London and parents are geared towards how they will get their children in to certain schools,' she says. Unlike LEYF and Kiddi Caru, Active Learning will not offer the two-year-olds entitlement, although it does for threes. Ms Johnson says the government funding is too low.
CASE STUDY: East London's olympic village
Seonaidh and Lee O'Neill opened a third Little Bear's Nursery in east London in September.
Ms O'Neill says, 'A year before the London 2012 Summer Olympics, we applied to run the nursery to be built within the Olympic Village after the games finished. The entire athletes' village has been redeveloped into flats in a beautiful, modern style. Our nursery is joined to a school, Chobham Academy, which caters to children from four to 18 years old.
'We were contractually obliged to open the nursery in September. But delays to the development meant people only began to move in during November. Many of the families who reserved places delayed their take-up. We currently have 20 children on roll at a 72-place setting. However, we anticipate rapid growth once the new homes become occupied. To provide the flexibility required of London's working parents, we offer a full daycare setting from 7:30am to 6:30pm.
'The planned occupation of properties was to ensure a phased release to the public. But that's just part of the risk of opening a new nursery, rather than using an existing setting. Challenges are also caused by the enormity of the scale of development. We've experienced logistical issues, for example, tight security, and delivery problems as the E20 postcode is not yet loaded on most satellite navigation systems.'
Mr O'Neill adds, 'We've developed a good relationship with our local authority, the London Borough of Newham. We're set up to offer all free entitlements, and already have three two-year-olds accessing free care.
'At the moment, the children we cater for are mainly siblings of academy pupils, or children whose parents pass through on their way to work. But once the local residents move in we're expecting a real mix. The flats are offered as full rental, part-ownership, and social housing.'