More than 30 childcare providers have closed across the county in only four months, Ofsted data has revealed.
Between August 31 and December 31 last year, 32 providers of childcare in non-domestic premises left the early years register in Kent and Medway.
This equates to 204 childcare places - almost half of the total lost for the south east at 439.
The data does not include nurseries within school settings or childcare provided in someone’s home.
The reasons for the closures have been put down to “gross underfunding”, an increase in cost due to higher bills and rent and a shortage in qualified staff.
These challenges were reflected in a letter sent to parents of children at YMCA Oakfield in Dartford. It read: "Due to the increased cost of living coupled with a severe shortage of childcare staff, means we’re no longer financially able to cover the costs of offering this service.
"Government funding rates – the amount we receive as a business for the ‘free’ places we offer – fall very short of covering our basic costs, and because of the lack of staff available, we’ve been forced to use agency workers, which substantially increases our costs."
Kelly Cattermole received this letter and it has left her trying to balance looking after four-year-old Holly and her full time job until she starts school in September.
Kelly said: "I was shocked to have received that email.
"The nursery was at full capacity so this affects not only me but many other parents who rely on their child attending there.
"This saddens me greatly when mums are encouraged to go back to work and are told the government is doing all it can, when in truth it appears to be the opposite.
"I am now facing the same situation as Covid: having to try to work full time with a child at home, putting myself under immense pressure when this isn’t accepted by my employer and my daughter is not receiving the enrichment she is entitled to or my time as I have to work.
"Kent County Council is constantly adding new housing. Where will these children go when the nurseries they have are closing down and they can’t accommodate the children already here? What will happen with the unused facility?
"These years are very important for children, not only for their learning but for their social skills, and to leave many children without that makes no sense especially those that are transitioning to primary school in September."
Kelly emailed Dartford MP Gareth Johnson and set up a petition to try and save the nursery. You can sign it here.
In a bid to help nurseries, the Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced plans for up to 30 hours a week of free childcare for working parents in England with children as young as nine-months-old.
Mr Hunt hopes that the phased policy, which will be fully introduced by September 2025, will encourage more parents to return to work.
But the announcement came too late for YMCA Oakfield.
Samantha Latouche, director of communities at YMCA said: "The closure of Oakfield Nursery was not a decision taken lightly. This was also made before the budget announcement.
"Although the government has shared figures for how this hourly increase benefits parents, at the time of writing, we are yet to receive this data as a childcare provider.
"We need to understand what the financial increases are for providers and the timeline for when these will happen – once we have this data, we will be able to look into this further.
"Our Chief Executive has met with the leaders of other YMCAs to discuss this as, to date, there is a massive gap in understanding about the ultimate impact on childcare providers."
'Mums are encouraged to go back to work and are told the government is doing all it can, when in truth it appears to be the opposite...'
The problems facing the sector are not new. Ofsted issued a warning in October about the crisis that lay ahead.
Neil Leitch, chief executive officer of the Early Years Alliance, said: "For years now, nurseries, pre-schools and childminding settings have been grossly underfunded by the government.
"This has left many with no choice but to raise their prices, resulting in sky-high costs for parents.
"Over recent months and years, this situation has become progressively worse, with the combined impact of a sustained lack of funding, the long-last effects of the pandemic and rising business costs – including energy bills – leaving more and more settings with no choice but to close their doors for good.
"As a result, many parents are being left without the vital childcare they need, while many young children are at risk of missing out on crucial early education.
"The early years sector is now at crisis point. Without urgent investment from the government, we are sure to see many more closures in the months and years to come."
Among those in Kent forced to close already is Hedgehogs pre-school in Wayfield, near Chatham.
A lack of government funding, a hike in rent and not having enough cash to pay qualified staff meant the owners had to shut the pre-school just a year after opening
Laura Hollands says the school, which accommodated 52 children from babies to four-year-olds, was "no longer financially viable".
Eccles Pre-School in Bull Lane, Aylesford, which has been running for almost 50 years, is also at risk of closing.
It has been running a JustGiving page since October after struggling with the impact of the cost of living crisis.
Closure is often a last resort for the bosses of these businesses. Covering the cost, even when childcare is meant to be free for certain children, has been passed on to parents up until now.
A national report into the childcare crisis from Pregnant Then Screwed revealed that three in four mothers who pay for childcare, say it no longer makes financial sense for them to work.
More than 24,000 parents were surveyed, and found one in 10 parents now say that childcare costs are the same or more than their take-home pay per day.
And for one in five parents, childcare costs are more than half of their household income.
It is hoped the government’s plan for more free childcare support for parents will help address the issue.
The Government will provide £4.1 billion by 2027-28 to expand the 30 hours a week of free childcare for working parents of younger children in England.
Under the current system, parents of three and four-year-olds in England are eligible for 15 hours of free childcare per week, and working parents with children in the same age group are eligible for 30 hours of free childcare.
Now all eligible households in England with children as young as nine months – where all adults are working at least 16 hours a week – will be entitled to 30 hours a week of free childcare.
The offer of free childcare will be available to working parents of two-year-olds from April 2024, covering around half-a-million parents, but initially it will be limited to 15 hours.
From September 2024, the 15-hour offer will be extended to children from nine months, which the Government has said will help nearly a million parents.
The full 30-hour offer to working parents of children under five will come in from September 2025.
But will this be enough to help those nurseries struggling to survive now?