The private nursery sector is at a tipping point, and I am very concerned that if we do not speak up for our interests then politicians will continue making policies that threaten the financial viability of the whole sector.
Inadequate hourly funding rates and increasing costs mean that nurseries across the country are having to make difficult decisions about their future, and with 49 per cent of all nurseries operating at a loss, whether or not they can remain viable over the long term.
Recent business rates increases have added significant pressure on private nurseries. In total, across our 19 Tops Day Nurseries, we have seen our rateable value increase by over £100,000 in 2017, with rates in some of our nurseries more than doubling. Looking into the near future, the roll-out of the Government’s 30 hours funded childcare policy will test our resourcefulness.
I support the ambitions behind the Government’s 30 hours funded childcare policy as it is important that parents are supported back to work. However, with less than half of nurseries and pre-schools planning to offer the 30 hours, and others trying to come up with imaginative solutions to plug the shortfall in funding, there is a real risk that the Government will fall short of its ambition to provide affordable childcare for working parents.
I also have concerns about how the roll-out of the policy is being implemented. Two Tops nurseries have taken part in the 30-hour childcare pilots, and we have experienced serious administration issues as well as a significant lack of awareness among parents about eligibility.
This is why, over the past two months, I have been meeting with councillors and MPs across the South coast to discuss the key issues facing the private nursery sector.
I have met six MPs in six weeks, and discussed 30 hours, apprenticeships, business and VAT rates. The MPs I have met have shown a genuine interest in our concerns, and have offered to table parliamentary questions, and speak privately with Early Years Minister, Caroline Dinenage, and other key Parliamentarians.
I believe that raising the profile of these issues is hugely important, and building supporters and advocates for the private nursery sector in Parliament is vital if we are to create the right conditions for private nurseries to operate as successful businesses.
Engagement with local authorities is also key. I recently led a deputation to Bournemouth Council on business rates increases, where I urged the council to provide business rates relief to local nurseries. This was an opportunity to explain to councillors why nurseries matter in all council wards. It was about demonstrating that these issues don’t simply threaten the financial viability of a local nursery in Bournemouth, but that they are issues that threaten the ability of hundreds of parents to work and find high-quality childcare for their children.
I am just one voice in this debate, and there are thousands of nursery owners across the country facing the same issues. This is why I am seeking to come together with others in the sector to support the establishment of an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) that can represent the interests of private nurseries.
I believe there is significant potential for an APPG on private nurseries to create a positive dialogue with the Government about issues facing our sector, and to build strong relationships with key Parliamentarians who can speak up on our behalf.
Perhaps what has been most striking throughout this engagement, is that most MPs and councillors are unware of the scale of the challenge facing private nurseries, and our struggle for survival.
As an industry, we must use our collective voice and continue to shout about these issues. The U-turn on the GCSE requirement shows that when we work together change can happen. This must not be a one off, but a sign that if we use our strength as a sector, we can achieve change.
- See our article about Portsmouth's participation in the 30 hour pilots in Nursery World 17-30 April.