DfE statistics show ‘substantial drop’ in demand for 'free childcare' places

Kathy Oxtoby
Friday, July 2, 2021

Drop in demand for early years provision revealed by new DfE statistics reflects ‘impact of Covid-19 uncertainty’, as sector leaders call for more support.

Demand for ‘free childcare’ places has dropped according to new statistics on childcare and early years from the Department for Education (DfE) published 1 July.

The DfE’s data reported on the provision of funded early education for children under five in England during the week commencing 18 January 2021. The data showed that:

  • 62 per cent (124,500) of two-year-olds eligible for the 15-hour early entitlement places were registered, down from 69 per cent in 2020.
  • The number of eligible two-year-olds registered to take up 15-hour early entitlement places had fallen by 13 per cent to 124,500  in 2021.
  • There was a five per cent drop to 1,212,000  in the number of three and four-year-olds registered to take up 15-hour places. The DfE stated that take-up is now ‘the lowest since it was first measured in 2008’.
  • The number of three and four-year-olds registered to take up 30-hour places had also fallen by five per cent to 328,662.

The DfE stated: ‘The decrease in the number and proportion of children registered to receive funded entitlements reflect the impact of Covid-19 uncertainty on supply (providers) and demand (parents) for early years provision in January 2021.’



Support needed ‘falls short’

The declines may be due to parents delaying registering their children for places as a result of the pandemic, the DfE said.

The data was collected from local authorities covering schools, maintained nurseries and private, voluntary and independent (PVI) providers, including childminders, as part of the spring school census and the early years census.  

Commenting on the findings, Neil Leitch, Early Years Alliance chief executive, said: ‘Early years settings have been able to open to all children for over a year now and yet, as these figures clearly show, there is still a long way to go before the sector returns to anything like normal.’ 

Mr Leitch said that with the number of children registered for early entitlement places ‘falling sharply’ compared to previous years as a result of the pandemic, ‘it’s clear that the Government’s decision to fund early years providers based on the number of children on roll, rather than on pre-pandemic attendance levels, falls short of the support needed’. 

‘Add to this the additional pressures of frequent closures due to self-isolation and illness, the additional costs associated with remaining Covid-secure and the long-running challenge of underfunding more generally, and it’s obvious that much more needs to be done to ensure that the early years sector is able to remain sustainable throughout the pandemic and beyond.’


‘Really worrying’ statistics

Purnima Tanuku OBE, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said the new statistics were ‘really worrying’, not least because of the ‘substantial drop in numbers of eligible two-year-olds taking up places’.

‘These are the children who really need to take up high-quality learning and care in order to achieve their potential and reduce the widening attainment gap.

‘Although we do believe that the impact of Covid may have resulted in some people deferring their child’s places – which could explain some of the reduction in demand – it is still a trend that could damage children’s development and threaten the sustainability of the childcare market,’ she said.

Ms Tanuku added: ‘The vast majority of funded places are provided by the private, voluntary and independent nursery sector. Our members have told us there has been a reduction in the numbers of parent-paid children, so if funded numbers have also dropped, they will struggle to remain on a firm financial footing. This could put the whole sector in jeopardy.

‘The Government must support parents of the most vulnerable children to make sure they take advantage of early years education and also give urgent financial support to the nursery sector to ensure there are enough places available for all children who want and need them.’


The DfE statistics are available here

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