We spoke to families at the Halloween-themed protest about how high childcare costs affect them – and what changes they want to see.
Around 15,000 parents protested in cities across the UK today, to call for sweeping changes to the childcare system and more workplace support for families.
The Halloween-themed March of the Mummies, organised by the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, took place in 11 cities. The UK’s patchy and expensive childcare system has increasingly been under the spotlight this year, as the cost-of-living crisis puts huge strain on families’ finances.
For the new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, childcare will be one of many pressing economic issues in his inbox. We spoke to parents at the London protest about how high childcare costs affect them – and what changes they want to see.
Imogen lives in London and is an account manager in the film industry. She and her husband pay £1,485 per month for their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to go to nursery for four days a week. As a result of this cost, they found it harder to get a mortgage and they can’t afford to have another child.
UK families pay some of the highest childcare fees in the world, OECD data shows. There are no state-run or heavily-subsidised nurseries, aside from a few exceptions. Parents with young children instead pay private nurseries and childminders, with fees commonly exceeding £1,000 per month for a full-time place. The government provides a complex set of subsidies, depending on parents’ incomes and children’s ages, but fees often still run to hundreds of pounds a month even for a part-time place.
Debra left her job in the NHS’ ambulance service this year, partly due to childcare costs and availability. She couldn’t find childcare for her irregular working hours, and even the cost of regular childcare was “prohibitive”. She now works as a self-employed hypnobirthing coach, while her husband works flexibly to help with childcare. “We’re being forced out of the workplace. So the skills gap is getting worse every year,” she says of mothers.
In the UK, around 1.7m women cannot work as many hours as they want due to childcare issues, according to a 2021 report by the Centre for Progressive Policy. Official data show that 43,000 women have quit work altogether to care for family over the past year, a rise of 3% on the previous year after decades of decline, although this is likely to be for a cocktail of reasons that include childcare.
Fabienne and Charles live in Northampton and have an eight-month-old baby. Fabienne left the childcare sector three years ago, due to the low pay, and now works in the motorsports industry. She still worries that she won’t find a role that covers nursery costs when she returns to work. The couple also say that fathers should get far more than the legal minimum of two weeks’ paternity leave, so they can play a more equal role in parenting.
The UK government’s relatively low spending on childcare not only results in high fees for parents – it also leaves childcare staff on extremely low wages. Early-years workers earn just £7.42 an hour on average, less than minimum wage, a 2020 government report found. As they struggle to find staff and balance the books, nurseries closed at a higher rate this summer than last year.
Amy and Ed, who live in Bedford and have a 20-month-old daughter, have spent over £12,000 in nursery fees in the last nine months alone. They are selling their house and moving closer to relatives to get help with childcare. They also found it very hard that Ed only had two weeks’ paternity leave when they became parents, as their daughter was born prematurely and was in and out of hospital during her first days.
Rishi Sunak is yet to say anything on childcare – but successive Conservative governments have shown little zeal for major reform, instead proposing tweaks to the existing system. A proposal to relax the adult-to-child ratios in childcare settings, meaning that fewer staff would be needed, is due for a parliamentary debate on 14th November. Nurseries warn that the move would be unsafe and would not reduce fees.
Labour has said that it would provide free breakfast clubs in primary schools if it came to power, allowing parents of school-age children to work full days without paying for “wraparound” care. But the party has not yet outlined any further childcare reforms.
Alice, an innovation manager, has a 21-month-old daughter. She and her husband pay £1,000 per month for their daughter to go to nursery for three days a week, which means they are unable to save any money for the future. She says the tax-free childcare subsidy, which is open to all working parents, “doesn’t touch the sides” of what they have to pay.
Pregnant Then Screwed is calling on the government to provide affordable childcare for all families, plus better paternity leave and flexible working rights. In many countries around the world, government spending on childcare is seen as a way to boost economic growth in the medium term, as it enables more parents to work and pay taxes.