Childcare in the UK is broken – and it’s about to get much worse. The cost of living crisis means working parents are already being squeezed by the burden of childcare fees, and energy bills and housing costs are set to soar in the coming weeks. Staff in the sector are paid so poorly that nurseries struggle to find and retain the employees they need to run, and nursery managers are scrabbling to balance the books, with 95% reporting that government funding doesn’t cover their costs. Calls for a solution have been getting louder, with mass protests now being planned for the end of October – although the police have used new legislation to refuse demonstration permits.
The childcare system in Britain is dizzyingly complex and eye-wateringly expensive. A cynic might think this complexity is purposeful. The average bill for putting a child under two in full time care in England comes to £225 per week, making it unsustainable for many families to have both parents in work and pushing hundreds of thousands of parents (mostly women) out of the workforce. One of the key childcare offers of the last decade of Tory rule has been tax-free childcare for working families; but only one in five families actually takes up the offer, resulting in a £2.37bn budget underspend – money that could be used to help low-income families access the care they need.
The tax-free system works like this: for every £8 you pay into an account on the gov.co.uk website, the government tops it up with an extra £2. You have to calculate how much you need to put in for the top up to cover your childcare invoice, then pay the money in from your bank account using a reference number assigned to your child, then wait two hours for the money to land in the other account, then set up a payment to go to the care provider. If you have more than one child in nursery, you have to do it again. And you need to do this every month (technically you can set up a standing order, but this only works if you have a regular income and pay the same amount every month, which, accounting for things like fluctuations in care needs and nursery opening hours, doesn’t really work in my experience). You can see why lots of overwhelmed, overworked parents can’t even begin to figure out this system to save a couple of hundred quid – and that’s if they even know it exists.
What about the free provision, then? Well, it’s only sort of free, and subject to a lot of conditions. If you’re on income support, jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit and your household income is below a certain amount (around £16,000 a year), you can access 15 hours of free childcare a week for your two-year-old. ‘Working families’ can access 30 hours of free childcare for three- and four-year-olds. But these ‘free’ hours are limited to term time only, which is only 38 weeks of the year. Most nurseries will offer you the chance to spread these hours out over the course of the year, so the 15 hours per week will become more like 10, and the 30 more like 20.
If you’re in the lower income bracket, you’ll have been entitled to your chunk of free childcare earlier, but it stays at the lower amount of 15 hours until your child starts school. Plus, you’ll often have to fork out extra for ‘wraparound care’ – care that covers the hours outside of an actual school day – so if you need to drop your kid off before 9am or pick them up after 3.30pm in order to make your shift, that’s extra too. So, the government’s policies sound a lot better than they work out in practice.
Parents aren’t the only ones who are missing out, of course. The average starting salary for a nursery worker in the UK is just £14,000, rising to £24,000 for an experienced worker. This is for skilled and high-pressure work with stringent entry requirements.
Several European countries have much cheaper and more accessible childcare provision than we’re used to in the UK, but there’s no easy fix. Childcare in Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands is heavily subsidised by the government – Sweden has a policy that guarantees parents spend no more than 3% of their income on childcare. One thing most of these countries have in common that help lower the cost of care is higher mandated ratios of staff to children. Nurseries in the UK need one adult for every three children under the age of two, and one adult for every four children aged between two and three, rising to one adult for every eight children aged three and four. Ratios elsewhere are looser, and former childcare minister Liz Truss (wonder what she’s up to now?) proposed in 2013 that ratios in the UK should be relaxed too.
This might sound like an easy solution, but it prompted an outcry from those in the early years sector, who argued that relaxed ratios would mean more work for the same money and would prompt already stretched and underpaid childcare workers to leave in droves.
So what’s the answer? The whole system needs an overhaul. Nursery workers deserve to be properly remunerated for their work, children deserve high-quality, consistent care where they can build lasting relationships with staff who are incentivised to stay in their jobs, and parents deserve affordable, accessible childcare that makes working worthwhile. Trying to do any one of these without the others is impossible.
A speech made by shadow education minister Bridget Phillipson at Labour’s annual conference last week laid out the “first step on the road to a modern childcare system,” promising free breakfast clubs for primary school age children. Phillipson’s speech also acknowledged the challenges faced by early years staff, who she said were among the “most poorly paid workers in our society.” Breakfast clubs aren’t a bad place to start, for sure – but the challenge for Labour is massive, and no full policy announcement for the sector has yet been forthcoming. It’s going to take more than cornflakes to fix Britain’s broken childcare system.
Edie Miller is a writer and editor based in north-east England specialising in the politics of labour, technology and the climate crisis.