Bristol is struggling to provide nursery places for its children as post-Covid burnout and cost of living rises fuel a recruitment crisis, staff and parents have told the Cable.
Earlier this year the National Day Nurseries Association warned that nurseries around England have been downgraded by Ofsted because of problems staffing their sites, with many having to close rooms or reduce their place numbers.
Local early years workers say they worry about children, especially those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), missing out on vital early-years development as a result of staff shortages.
On Bristol Facebook groups, meanwhile, families have been sharing stories of how tricky it can be to find a nursery place. Their searches are often triggered by their existing nursery shrinking its provision.
A letter sent to parents of children at one site that has closed completely – Flying Start in Filton – described “extreme recruitment and staffing pressures” as being key to the decision. The previously ‘outstanding’ nursery, which was taken over several years ago by the national Just Childcare group, was demoted to ‘requires improvement’ at its last inspection in September 2021.
The decision to shut Flying Start, until at least September 2022, came in May. It followed a series of part-closures, starting with its preschool room, earlier this year.
Tracey Miller, a local mum whose two children have gone to Flying Start, told the Cable there had been staffing issues at the formerly “amazing” nursery since Just Childcare took it on.
“After Covid started calming down, staff started to leave even more – March was when they first started closing [odd days],” said Miller, who works for the NHS. “It went like that for a while, and then all of a sudden it was, we’re closing.
“There were some nights I was logging off at two in the morning, and then I’m back on it at nine ish the next day,” added Miller, who has had to juggle childcare with work and a part-time masters. “So it has had a massive impact.”
Another parent, who also works in healthcare in a frontline role, said she too had been affected by the closure. “I started crying when I got the email,” she said, adding that she had phoned eight or nine other nurseries before eventually getting a place.
A Just Childcare spokesperson said ongoing shortages of trained nursery practitioners, government underfunding and an “increasingly competitive recruitment market” had “impacted everyone in the sector”.
“To ensure children and staff remain safe we are required by law to maintain Ofsted’s statutory child/staff ratio, and as a result when short-term staff shortages arise we are left with little choice than to close a room,” the spokesperson said.
They added that the company recognised the “upheaval” this caused for parents, and that it was increasing salaries and taking other measures to attract staff.
Many workers in the sector, which has long been underfunded, are paid at or just above minimum wage. The government is also considering relaxing rules around the number of children nursery staff can care for, as a way of lowering costs for parents, which would increase pressure on staff.
Unlike schools, early years provision remained open for all children throughout the 2021 lockdown. Despite a petition arguing that staff deserved better protection, which attracted 103,000 signatures and was debated in Parliament, the government concluded the presence of other Covid restrictions justified the decision.
“Early years staff wore no masks during the pandemic, we didn’t close, [but there was] no thanks for it really,” said one manager, who spoke to the Cable on condition of anonymity.
“Staff morale is not great because of the stresses – everyone’s exhausted,” added the manager, who said her site was having to cut dozens of places. “We’re losing people and can’t replace them – some are not going to other nurseries [but to other sectors] like hair and beauty.”
The scale of the sector’s recruitment problems is underlined by a leaflet distributed publicly by local nursery provider Red Bus, which operates three sites. It offers £999 to anyone who refers someone with an early years qualification to the company, who it subsequently employs. Red Bus did not respond to a request for comment by the Cable.
A Bristol City Council spokesperson said the council was aware of “a couple” of closures but believed it was meeting its statutory duty to provide sufficient childcare capacity for the city. The council declined to comment further as it is beginning a new review of that citywide capacity.