Rural areas in England lost early years childcare providers at more than twice the rate of urban areas during the first five months of the pandemic, data analysis by NationalWorld can reveal.
Analysis of Ofsted figures shows that the total number of early years providers in England fell by 1.1% in predominantly rural areas between March 2020 and August 2020.
This compares with a drop of 0.8% in urban areas with rural pockets, and a drop of 0.5% in predominantly urban areas.
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NationalWorld used Office for National Statistics data to sort councils into rural versus urban categories.
Cornwall was the worst-affected predominantly rural area, losing 19 (3.8%) of its early years providers between March and August.
However the urban council of Darlington lost five providers, which was a drop of 4.3%, making it the worst hit area.
Nationwide, England lost almost three providers per day on average during the first five months of the pandemic, with a fall in childminders driving the majority of the decline.
The figures come after a report published by the County Councils Network (CCN) last year which warned that rural and remote areas were most at risk of adverse impacts from the closure of childcare settings.
Cllr Keith Glazier, children and young people’s spokesperson for the CCN, said the findings were “unfortunately only too predictable”.
“The County Councils Network warned last autumn that families in rural areas were likely to be worse hit with less opportunities for the consolidation of children across fewer settings and more risk of providers opting to leave the market,” he said.
“The key now is for government to recognise the importance of childcare within the social infrastructure which will drive economic recovery and vital to levelling up opportunities for those in rural communities.”
Among just district and unitary authorities, such as London boroughs and areas like Cornwall with just one tier of local government, rural areas lost providers at almost three times the rate of urban ones (a drop of 1.4% compared to 0.5%).
In areas governed by a county council as well as a lower tier district council, predominantly rural areas lost 0.9% of providers compared to 0.4% for urban counties.
“We’ve been forgotten about”
Graham Biggs, chief executive of the Rural Services Network (RSN), believes that the “low-paid, part-time or even seasonal jobs” common in rural areas may have contributed to the decline.
“If people lost work, the financial impact on rural families will have been huge - childcare will have become even more unaffordable,” he said.
Leanne Goodwin, manager of Nancledra Preschool in Penzance, has seen the toll of this financial strain on parents firsthand.
“I’ve had parents literally crying on the phone because they couldn’t afford their nursery bill,” she said, adding that many people working in hospitality in Cornwall saw their jobs disappear overnight.
During the January lockdown, guidance stated that nurseries could continue to collect fees from parents who were not sending children in due to fears about coronavirus.
For Leanne, however, it didn’t feel “morally right” to collect such fees from parents who “couldn’t even afford to buy their children food, let alone pay their nursery bills”.
The subsequent fall in income left Nancledra in dire straits, with the nursery forced to run a crowdfunder to keep themselves afloat.
A grant from the Cornwall Foundation, Leanne said, was the only thing that “kept us from being forced to close”.
Leanne feels that nurseries have been “forgotten about” during the pandemic, in spite of their role in looking after “some of the most vulnerable people in society” and enabling parents to stay in work.
“Being in such a rural area, if we closed, that’d be dozens of parents out of a job, and at least 60 children without local childcare provision. I don’t know where else they’d be able to go,” she said.
“I was logging on at five in the morning”
Ginny Davidson, a parent living in a rural village near Newquay, has long struggled to find suitable childcare for her daughter, now seven, with the closure of her childminder last June complicating matters further.
“[Last June] nowhere was taking on new placements due to Covid,” she explained.
Both Ginny and her husband work full-time, and though she was able to work from home while unable to find childcare, she said that attempting to work while looking after her daughter was extremely difficult.
“It was really stressful, I had to log on at five o’clock in the morning to try and get a couple of hours done before my daughter woke up, then had to work until 11 to try and catch up on all the stuff I hadn’t managed during the day,” she said.
Ginny has continued to struggle, with herself and her husband “using up all our annual leave” to compensate for the lack of formal care available.
Though she’s managed to find a local setting for one day a week, it’s likely she’ll have to travel much further for a provider who can cover the extra days and hours she needs.
“I’m going to have to travel about 20 miles to drop my daughter off, and then get to work. That’s a 40 mile round trip,” she said.
Being in a rural area makes finding local provision difficult, Ginny believes, with “quite a lot of childcare providers in the big cities”.
The Department for Education publishes figures on both the number of childcare providers and the number of places that are available.
A spokesperson said that the number of providers alone is not the only indicator of whether there is sufficient provision in an area, adding that the number of places “has remained broadly stable since August 2015”.
NationalWorld’s analysis shows that while there was only a small decrease in places between March and August – indicating remaining providers are expanding in size or that smaller units are merging – the drop in rural areas was still almost four times more significant than in urban areas.
The spokesperson continued: “Throughout the pandemic we have protected the sector with significant financial and business support and we have increased the hourly funding rates paid to councils for the delivery of high quality, free childcare places.”
Cornwall Council was approached for comment.
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