More than 1,500 pre-schoolers are cared for by substandard childminders and nurseries in Essex, figures show.

Experts say "woeful" underfunding and a recruitment and retention crisis have contributed to too many children receiving inappropriate levels of care and education at a crucial development stage.

At the end of March, at least 1,668 three and four-year-olds were being looked after by childcare providers in Essex rated "inadequate" or "requiring improvement", figures from the education watchdog show.

They include 537 children attending early years settings that received the lowest possible Ofsted grading of "inadequate".

It means 4 per cent of the three and four-year-olds who have places at Government-funded facilities in Essex were cared for by negatively-rated institutions or childminders.

The largest proportion of children their age (63 per cent) attend settings inspectors rated "good" while 22 per cent enjoy "outstanding" care in the area.

In addition to those, there are other youngsters attending settings that do not currently have an Ofsted rating.

The figures cover all providers that receive funding giving children of that age 15 free hours of care and early education for up to 38 weeks a year. They include 8,299 children of working families, who are entitled to an additional 15 hours under the Government's tax-free childcare scheme.

Families can use their allocation of hours at providers including childminders, private and school nurseries and pre-schools.

Across England, the vast majority of children attended "good" or "outstanding" facilities in March but there were more than 71,000 cared for in settings that "require improvement" and over 21,500 looked after by "inadequate" providers.

Ofsted's Gill Jones said the majority of nurseries and childminders were doing a brilliant job, but added: "There are still too many children attending provision that isn't good enough.

"The early years are absolutely crucial to children’s learning, development and care, and we want to see every child get the best start in life."

A Department for Education spokesperson said there had been unprecedented investment into childcare over the past decade.

She added: “Standards remain high, with 96 per cent of childcare providers rated good or outstanding by Ofsted."