Parents are shelling out £30k a year for childcare – what is wrong with this country?

·7-min read
‘Those who say, “don’t have kids if you can’t afford to pay for them” are being simplistic to the point of obfuscation’  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
‘Those who say, “don’t have kids if you can’t afford to pay for them” are being simplistic to the point of obfuscation’ (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The bombshell that childcare costs in the UK are “crippling” working parents, with tens of thousands of people in the UK left feeling strapped, trapped and desperate, is breaking news to everyone except those who have been there.

I am out of the immediate disaster years when it comes to paying for all-day care for my children: my son is now five, and started in reception at a state primary school last year. For the next 11 years of his education, he’s covered (at least until 3pm) – but prior to that? My family was just one of those shelling out as much as £8,400 a year for three full days per week of childcare at a London nursery. And I was one of the “lucky” ones.

A recent survey of 20,000 working parents found that 96 per cent said they felt the government were not doing enough to support parents with the cost and availability of childcare, and 97 per cent said childcare in the UK was too expensive, with one third of parents paying more for their children to be looked after than their rent or mortgage. A friend I chatted to on the school run yesterday about this report has one of the most extreme examples to tell.

She’s freelance and works as an advertising producer, a job that takes her all over the world at (relatively) short notice. Her working hours aren’t consistent, her husband works too, and they have two kids under seven. As a result, she told me they fork out close to £30,000 a year to pay a nanny who is “on call” whenever they need her – and sometimes that’s only two or three times a week, for a couple of hours.

“When I’m on a job, life is pretty intense,” she told me. “I paid £4,000 over the summer for six weeks of ad hoc childcare – I needed to do that or I wouldn’t have been able to work. By August I’d spent roughly £15,000 already this year on childcare alone; by the end of this year it’ll be around £25,000. In previous years, when the kids weren’t at school, it was £30,000. Do I begrudge paying that much? Sometimes – but it’s either that or not having a career, and I don’t want to give that up.”

Dire, yes – and being able to afford a £30,000-a-year nanny is, of course, a privilege – but her story is not unusual. Just days before the start of term, the school WhatsApp group was buzzing with panic as parents raced to fight each other for spaces for the after-school club that runs Monday to Friday. With a limited number of places available, if you don’t get in, you can’t go into the office. If you are lucky enough to get one of the hallowed slots, you pay £15 per child for the chance to pick them up at 6pm. Ad hoc childcare isn’t easy to find, or easily obtainable – not without family nearby. Elbows sharpened to knife point, it was a gladiatorial bunfight as we wished each other “good luck” and prepared to log on – childcare reduced to an online auction.

But while it might be inconvenient for some parents, it can be devastating for others. Research shows that parents and carers on the lowest incomes – including single parents, those on universal credit, those with disabilities or with a Black ethnic background – have been most impacted by childcare costs, with one in three with a household income of less than £20,000 having to cut back on essential food or housing as a direct result of bills relating to childcare. A debate on the prohibitive costs of childcare took place yesterday, after more than 100,000 people signed a petition tabled by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed.

Will anything change? I doubt it. In 2019, a report revealed that British parents spend the equivalent of a year’s university tuition on childcare. Three years later, parents and carers are still underwater – except for the fact that we’ve also had a global pandemic to deal with; decimating lives and livelihoods. The pressures then were immense for any parent who wanted and needed to hold down their career, while also having a family. Now, they are even more so.

When my children were at nursery, the bills each month made me wince: £700 for three days of 8am-6pm childcare for my (then) two-year-old – a total of £8,400 a year. That amount didn’t take into account the added costs of after-school care for my eldest (£15 for two hours) or before-school breakfast club (£4 a day). Monthly childcare costs families like mine, all-in, close to a grand. And some months – such as December with its onslaught of gift-giving – it was literally unaffordable.

To those who say, why pay it at all, then? Well, shelling out for private nursery care is the only option available until your kids turn three and the 30 hours of free early education and childcare for three and four-year-olds (known as “extended entitlement”) kicks in. What about the period between your child turning one – when many people are expected to return to work after maternity leave – and three? There’s a gulf that has been pointedly ignored by the government, then and now.

People may also ask why parents – by which they usually mean women – go back to work in the first place, given the costs. But for me (and particularly for single parents) it was vital. I couldn’t afford to miss out on huge chunks of my career, and I wanted to work. In fact, I needed to work – to retain my sense of self and mental wellbeing after becoming a mother for the first time; to feel connected to the vocation I’d spent 15 hard years working towards; to pay the bills. I couldn’t bear to give it all up because I was barely breaking even – despite the fact that some months, I was effectively paying to go to work.

I also continued with my career, despite the odds, because I wanted to show my children how important it is for women to do so – particularly my daughter: a major study by Harvard University in 2015 found that the daughters of working mothers tend to have better careers and more equal relationships.

I know countless women who have done exactly the same thing – and that’s the other thing about childcare concerns that we need to scream and shout about: they disproportionately affect women. No wonder many women’s careers stall in those vital early years of becoming a parent, because we are either paying to work, or can’t afford to work at all. The Family and Childcare Trust found in 2015 that it simply “does not pay to work”.

For many women, staying at home with their children can be a choice – one they enjoy and are proud of. But for others, the concept of “choice” is taken away by the prohibitive costs of childcare.

Not only is the current childcare system woefully inadequate, but it is actively encouraging “traditional” patriarchal norms of the woman staying at home to look after the kids, while the man goes out to work – perhaps no surprise, coming from the current government, with people like Jacob “I’ve never changed a nappy” Rees-Mogg on the front benches. The pandemic has already taken women backwards – findings show that during the first month of the first UK-wide lockdown, women were carrying out, on average, two-thirds more of the childcare duties per day than men. If the government continues to fail working parents, the trend will worsen – and the gap will get wider still.

Those who say “don’t have kids if you can’t afford to pay for them” are being simplistic to the point of obfuscation. The real issue here is that childcare provision in the UK needs a complete overhaul – only then will we begin to tackle gender inequality. And that needs to come from the top.

We shouldn’t be blaming parents, but a system that is continually failing to support its own workforce. According to the statistics, 71.8 per cent of that workforce is women. Isn’t it time we did better by working mothers – and their kids?

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