My family diary: All aboard the Budget rollercoaster

Parents have had to ride waves of rumours about childcare reform in recent months. And, even after the Budget, we don’t quite know where we stand.

Child's drawing showing a family and a rollercoaster


Just over a week ago, I was giddily calculating what to do with the extra £1,000 that was about to fall into our laps every month. That’s right: £1,000. That’s right: every month.

My list included grown-up things like pension pots, career things like training courses, and fun things like takeaways and band t-shirts. Even if we used half of this monthly sum to replenish my savings, which funded me through two stints of maternity leave and are now basically non-existent, we’d have £500 per month. That’s a lot of band t-shirts. Think how much we could support the local band t-shirt economy.

Just over a week ago, maybe you were excited too. The news had just broken that Jeremy Hunt was going to announce a huge free childcare scheme in his Budget the following day. He was due to offer 30 hours of free childcare per week to working parents with children aged from 9 months to 2 years. He would also up the funding for an existing ‘free hours’ scheme for 3-4-year-olds (which often only offers subsidised hours due to a lack of funding). 

My NCT Whatsapp group pinged with other excited mothers. “I feel nervous about tomorrow – like I’m waiting for exam results.” one said. It felt like a big deal.

Wave after wave of rumours

graphic showing a complex rollercoaster

Since last summer, parents have had to ride wave after wave of rumours regarding the government’s plans for childcare reform. There was speculation that Liz Truss (remember her?) would start giving state money directly to families, rather than to childcare providers. More recently, there were murmurs that Rishi Sunak had dropped an unpopular proposal to “relax the ratios” for nurseries and childminders. 

For the parents on this rollercoaster – okay, more like one of those slow spinning teacup rides that doesn’t go anywhere and still makes you feel ill – each rumour makes us wonder if our child’s nursery is about to become less expensive, more expensive, less safe, or close down. You wonder what it all means for your ability to work and pay the bills.

On the eve of the Budget, Hunt’s leaked offer seemed to be something tangible at last – and something positive. But the next day he unveiled a scheme that won’t fully kick in until autumn 2025. He announced roughly £4bn of funding for the new free hours scheme and £490m to boost the existing ones, fractions of what economists say is needed. He went ahead with the ratio changes too.

I’m glad that childcare has been recognised as a central political issue. But for most parents struggling with childcare costs today nothing has changed, aside from some welcome changes to Universal Credit. And I don’t want to get too philosophical here but: if the government announces a new scheme, but doesn’t announce enough money to carry it out, does it really exist? 

It’s little wonder that only a quarter of parents polled by were happy with the announcements. As one of the NCT mothers posted in my Whatsapp group just after the Budget: “Hmmmm.”

Who is subsidising who?

Because the UK government doesn’t give nurseries and childminders enough money to do their job, these childcare providers basically have to charge parents more or run at a loss. And a sad side-effect of this is that it creates distrust between providers and families.

Last week, a friend who uses the same nursery as us asked to compare invoices. They were concerned that the nursery was over-charging us, when it came to the top-up fees we have to pay for our ‘free hours’ for our four-year-olds (we both checked with our lovely nursery and it was all legit). I’ve also interviewed parents who wonder why their nursery fees are so high when the facilities seem so “basic”. 

A few hours before the Budget, BBC Woman’s Hour interviewed an economist who put it perfectly. The government says it is supporting parents with free or subsidised childcare, but the reality is the reverse. We pay high fees because “parents…are actually subsidising the government.” 

Looks like it’ll be a little while longer before I get that Strokes t-shirt.


** This blog is part of a series called The Chaos Train, a record of daily life when you have a career and pre-school children **

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