Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on Contents

4Childcare accessibility and provision

The ongoing impact of covid-19

52.Access to childcare has been a major concern for new parents during the pandemic, and our report last year found it was a significant factor in petitioners’ calls for an extension to paid parental leave.78 Since June 2020, Government guidance has allowed childcare settings to remain open, including during subsequent lockdowns. However, we heard that—despite this guidance—the availability and use of formal childcare by new parents remains low in many areas. When asked to what extent childcare settings had returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity and availability, Neil Leitch of the Early Years Alliance told us: “They have not, and that is the reality”.79 Official figures show the number of children attending childcare settings is currently around 75% of pre-pandemic levels, but Neil Leitch suggested this overstated current levels of activity, as the number of hours for which children are attending has fallen during covid-19.80 This was echoed in the results of our June 2021 public engagement survey.81

53.The pandemic has also exacerbated pre-existing concerns about the sector’s long-term financial situation, as we highlighted in our report last year.82 Our June 2021 survey suggested that the Government’s financial assistance for the sector has been effective in reaching providers, providing them with timely and much-needed support: 59% of respondents who ran or worked for a childcare setting reported having received support via initiatives including furlough and the business rates holiday over the past year. Despite this, 72% of respondents also told us they expected the pandemic to have a “major” or “moderate” effect on their setting’s long-term financial sustainability, and 46% of respondents were “extremely” or “moderately” concerned about the impact of the future withdrawal of Government support on their setting’s financial sustainability.83

54.Neil Leitch suggested that funding for settings to deliver the free childcare entitlement for 3- and 4-year olds was insufficient, leading to settings relying on charging higher fees to other parents to remain viable.84 Given this reliance on “cross-subsidising”, with fewer children currently attending settings, as well as uncertainty about the long-term impact of the pandemic on demand for childcare, we were told that providers’ financial situation “will not get better”.85 Both Ofsted86 and the charity Coram87 have published data suggesting the long-term decline in the number of early years providers (in particular childminders) continued in early 2021. While Ofsted’s data also suggests the overall number of places offered by providers on the Early Years Register has remained “broadly stable” since 2015, witnesses suggested the pandemic had put the long-term viability of the sector in greater jeopardy, especially in more deprived areas of the country.88

55.We also heard that many parents had reduced the hours they were planning to work, or found their return to work disrupted, by being unable to find affordable childcare. In our June 2021 public survey, 62% of respondents “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that “a shortage of affordable or available childcare has made it harder (or impossible) for me to go back to work”. This included many parents reporting that reduced opening hours and capacity at their preferred setting during covid-19 were preventing them from returning to work as they would like.89 New mother Bethany Power told us that her return to work had been “very challenging, because of the childcare costs”, and she called for greater Government support for working parents before the 30-hours entitlement begins when a child turns 3.90 While there are positive Government initiatives supporting these parents, including Tax-Free Childcare91 and support for childcare costs through Universal Credit, both Bethany Power92 and respondents to our survey93 suggested these had only a limited impact in helping working parents meet childcare costs.

56.Witnesses supported the call of a currently open petition,94 created by Joeli Brearley of Pregnant Then Screwed, for an independent review of childcare funding and affordability.95 At the time of writing, the petition has been signed by over 112,000 people and was debated in Westminster Hall on 13 September 2021.96 In its response to the petition (provided in June), the Department for Education stated that it was “not currently planning a review of early years funding”, but noted that it would “continue to evaluate the support on offer and endeavour to provide support to both parents and providers to ensure the sustainability of the sector.”97 In the September 2021 debate, the then-Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education Vicky Ford MP confirmed the Government’s position, arguing that “Given that we are in the middle of spending review negotiations, it would not be appropriate to launch a separate independent review of childcare at this time because the outcomes of such a review would not be able to feed into the spending review that is happening right now.”98

57.Despite childcare settings being allowed to remain open since summer 2020, levels of activity remain below pre-pandemic levels. We welcome the steps taken by the Government to support the sector financially during covid-19, but this has not prevented many providers seeing a significant impact on their finances. With ongoing uncertainty about future demand for their services, there is a real risk the pandemic will contribute to an ongoing erosion of provision or even act as a tipping point and accelerate this trend. Long-term, targeted support from the Government will be required to avoid this outcome, which would have serious consequences for children’s early education and parents’ workforce participation.

58.New parents continue to struggle to access the childcare they need to effectively re-enter the workforce on the terms they want. While covid-19 has exacerbated this challenge, the high cost of paid-for childcare is a barrier which both predates covid-19 and will outlast it. More could be done to ensure that Government support, especially for parents of children under 3, alleviates the pressures of these costs for working parents.

59.We support the call of petitioners for an independent review into childcare funding and affordability. We recommend that the Government should commission such a review, to consider how to provide greater financial security to the sector following the pandemic, as well as consulting with parents on how to ensure childcare provision meets their needs and supports their return to work. This review should include but not be limited to future sector funding allocations, and so should be separate from the ongoing Spending Review process. The Government should set the terms of reference for this review within two months, with a view to publishing the findings of the review by next summer.

78 Petitions Committee, First Report of Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave, para 94,HC 526

81 In our survey, 95% of respondents who said they ran or worked for a childcare setting told us their setting remained open, but 57% also said that fewer children were attending in a typical week due to covid-19. See Petitions Committee - Summary of survey: The impact of Covid-19 on new aprents - one year on (ICP0001)

82 Petitions Committee, First Report of Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave, paras 97-100, HC 526

83 Petitions Committee - Summary of survey: The impact of Covid-19 on new aprents - one year on (ICP0001)

86 Ofsted, Official Statistics: Main findings: childcare providers and inspections as at 31 March 2021 (last updated 26 August 2021) (accessed 17 September 2021)

87 Coram Family and Childcare, Childcare Survey 2021, March 2021

89 Petitions Committee - Summary of survey: The impact of Covid-19 on new aprents - one year on (ICP0001)

90 Q7

91 GOV.UK, Tax-Free Childcare (accessed 17 September 2021)

92 Q7

93 Of those respondents to our survey who said they have received support for childcare costs from the Tax-Free Childcare scheme or from Universal Credit or tax credits, only 42% and 36% respectively agreed that these schemes “make a big difference to how affordable childcare is for my family”. See Petitions Committee - Summary of survey: The impact of Covid-19 on new aprents - one year on (ICP0001)

96 HC Deb, 13 September 2021, cols 205–230WH

97 Department for Education, response to e-petition 586700, 23 June 2021

98 HC Deb, 13 September 2021, col 227WH

Published: 7 October 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement