Childcare deserts: the reality of access to early years education

How the current approach fails to support more low-income households to access care

There has been intense media scrutiny over recent weeks of the government’s roll-out of additional free hours’ of childcare for working parents in England. Critics are concerned if the government is providing enough funding to providers to cover these hours of care and whether there is a sufficient workforce to deliver them. In turn, many parents are finding that they can’t find childcare places to make use of the expanded offer the government has promised.

None of this will come as a huge surprise to anyone who has been following the debate around childcare since the government announced the expansion of the free hours’ scheme just over a year ago. NEF argued for an improved funding settlement and a greater focus on workforce development in our report last November on the need for a Universal Basic Services approach to early years education and care.

We also highlighted the issue of childcare deserts’ – areas where there are three or more children for every available childcare place. At the time, half of all local authorities met this definition. This foreshadowed the challenges around access many parents are currently experiencing. But the location of these deserts’ highlights much more fundamental issues with how childcare is designed, delivered and funded.

We split all local authorities into five groups based on their average ranking on the Index of Multiple Deprivation’ measure. This covers things like levels of income, employment, health and crime. Then we looked at what proportion of local authorities in each of quintile of deprivation met the childcare deserts’ definition. We found a clear and stark correlation between deprivation and access to early year’s education, demonstrated in the graph below.

Figure 1: The most deprived local authorities are also the most likely to be childcare deserts’

At first glance, one interpretation of this graph might be that a marketised model of childcare fails to serve poorer areas of the country. But the reality is actually far worse. The distribution of access reflects how the funding model has been designed by government and the families they have prioritised. The full offer of free hours’ is only available to families where all parents who can work are doing so for at least 16 hours per week. This is a condition that fewer households will be meeting in more deprived areas of the country.

Within the government’s framing of childcare – that its primary function is to enable parents, mostly mothers, to work – some might argue that this allocation of resources makes sense. But even if we accepted this premise, many unemployed and underemployed parents of young children would find it much easier to seek work if childcare was free and easy to access. Instead of providing childcare as a universal foundation, it is dangled as an incentive for parents who can make the transition into work.

However, the more fundamental problem with the government’s approach is that it fails to support and encourage more low-income households to access early years education and care. The Sutton Trust has found that accessing at least 20 hours of high-quality early years education would help to close attainment and development gaps between children from low- and higher-income households. NEF analysis last year also showed that there would be significant economic returns from increasing access to early years education for children from low-income households. 

Figure 2: Extending high-quality provision to those on low incomes brings significant benefits

NEF analysis has shown that making access to early years education equal across the whole country, at the level enjoyed in local authorities furthest away from being childcare deserts’, could create over 120,000 new jobs, concentrated in poorer areas. The table below shows the vast gap between those local authorities with the largest number of children for each available childcare place and those with the highest levels of provision per child. The accompanying graph maps out all local authorities by their ratio of children to childcare places and their level of deprivation.

Figure 3: Local authorities with the most children per childcare place are also the most deprived

Local authority

Number of 0 – 5 year olds to each childcare place

Rank of average IMD rank* (1=most deprived, 150=least deprived) **

Local authorities with highest number of 0 – 5 year olds to each childcare place

1) Walsall



2) Sunderland



3) Slough



4) Hartlepool



5) Kingston upon Hull



6) Wolverhampton



7) Leicester



8) Dudley



9) Rotherham



10) Newham



Local authorities with lowest number of 0 – 5 year olds to each childcare place

1) Richmond Upon Thames***



2) Wokingham



3) Bromley



4) Trafford



5) Warrington



6) Brighton and Hove



7) Windsor and Maidenhead



8) Wandsworth



9) West Berkshire



10) Surrey



* The rank of average rank is an official figure produced by the MHCLG. It is taken by taking the average IMD rank of each neighbourhood (aka LSOA”) in a Local Authority across all IMD domains. The rank of these average ranks across all Local authorities is then taken.
** North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire Local authorities are excluded from the list, because they were only created in 2021, before the latest version of the ONS data at the time of the analysis (2019)
** The City of London has been excluded from this list as an outlier with a ratio of 0.5 due to the low number of residents compared to the number of people who come into the area to work

Figure 4: Local authorities with the most children per childcare place are also the most deprived

The persistent message from government has been that childcare is for the benefit of parents working at least 16 hours a week. As a result, there is not a widespread cultural or social expectation that all children should receive early years education. Nor is it seen as a public good in the way that school is. As such, it is not clear how much equalising levels of provision across the country would increase the number of children from low-income households accessing it.

Increasing take up of early years education among low-income households, benefiting children and helping parents to find a job or increase their working hours, will therefore require a coordinated effort from government, involving a shift of both policy and narrative. At NEF, we are working on an alternative funding model, in partnership with Pregnant Then Screwed, that could sit at the heart of this new approach – we will be sharing more on this soon.

Image: iStock

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