A NURSERY owner said plans to expand childcare in the chancellor's spring budget have come as a 'shock' to the sector.

Childcare has been thrown into the spotlight after chancellor Jeremy Hunt made it a central subject of his spring budget.

The Government plans to significantly expand free childcare over the next few years, as charities warned they may be hampered by a lack of capacity in the sector and recruitment difficulties.

Georgina Lester has owned Little Tinklers in Corbridge and Ponteland which are award-winning, Outstanding Ofsted-rated nurseries, for 19 years.

Hexham Courant: Little Tinklers in CorbridgeLittle Tinklers in Corbridge (Image: Little Tinklers)

Little Tinklers was awarded Best Childcare Provider in the North East at the Families North East awards in 2022.  

Georgina said: "The sector is seeing huge struggles already recruiting staff.

"This has been exacerbated over recent years with the introduction of functional skills required in Maths and English to be able to qualify as a nursery nurse, which has significantly disengaged people from the sector. There are many people out there who would make fabulous nursery practitioners, but unfortunately do not have the opportunity due to the barriers faced with training.

"The budget plans were not consulted on and have come as quite a shock to the sector. This is a flawed plan in many aspects, as ‘free places’ are underfunded to the settings typically by between £2.20 to £2.30 per hour, per child. 

"Funding from the government is greatly shored up by the private fee-paying customer. However, if this funding stream is closed, more nurseries will quickly become unviable and will close, leading to nowhere for children to go, meaning parents will not be able to easily go back to work."

Figures from the Department for Education show there were 4,806 places for early years childcare in Northumberland in December 2022, while separate data from the 2021 census shows there were around 14,200 children aged four and under in the area.

This suggests there was one childcare place for every three children in Northumberland.

This was a worse ratio than across the country, where there were 2.4 children per place.

The chancellor announced 30 hours of free childcare for all under-fives from the moment maternity care ends, where eligible, and said the policy would be introduced in stages to ensure there is "enough supply in the market".

The offer of free childcare for working parents will be available to those with two-year-olds from April 2024, covering around half a million parents, but will initially be limited to 15 hours.

From September 2024, the 15-hour offer will extend to children from nine months, helping nearly a million parents, and the full 30-hour offer to all under-fives will come in from September 2025.

Georgina said: "The suggestion to increase staff ratios in the two-year age group from 1:4 to 1:5 is sticking plaster politics. Staff already work extremely hard to care for four children each. Stretching this ratio even further is a health and safety concern alongside a blow to the morale of staff already under huge pressure and for low income. It is simply not viable, practical or safe to endorse this.

"I believe parents are typically unaware of the huge challenges this sector faces. The headlines spin the new rollout as a positive, which of course it is as a huge incentive to encourage parents back to work and to aid with childcare costs. However, the truth is that this could actually undermine the government agenda. If nurseries simply can’t afford to open, there will be no childcare available," she said.

READ MORE: Nursery is still 'outstanding' six years on

Jeremy Hunt said: "It is a huge change and we are going to need thousands more nurseries, thousands more schools offering provision they don’t currently offer, thousands more childminders.

“We are going as fast as we can to get the supply in the market to expand."

Georgina added: "I believe a practical and immediate solution to help with the staffing shortfall nationally would be to look at the levels of qualifications needed in a setting, rather than increasing ratios. Nurseries are required by Ofsted to employ a high percentage of qualified nursery nurses, when there is a pot of capable and willing potential staff unable to join the sector.

"Having a qualified and experienced room lead with a small team of competent staff, qualified or not, would bring all ages, sexes and cultures into the workforce and be hugely beneficial to these businesses," she said.

Hexham MP Guy Opperman said he was ‘delighted’ schools across Tynedale and Ponteland will benefit from additional funding as part of the Government’s £2.3 billion school funding boost.

Northumberland County Council will receive an additional £9.4m for first schools, middle schools, and high schools this year.

Since 2015, £98.1m has been invested in the four local high schools at Haydon Bridge, Queen Elizabeth High School, Ponteland and Prudhoe.