Mothers are having to pause careers due to lack of summer childcare

Women are reducing their work hours, taking unpaid leave, or turning down projects, as they can’t find the types of holiday care they need.

Jo with her daughter


Over the next two months, Jo is likely to be found working at 5am before everyone else in the house is awake, or at 11pm after everyone goes to sleep. She will push her work to the weekends as much as possible. Sometimes she will turn projects down altogether.

“It’s inevitable that just when something important [work-wise] comes up, it’s always the school holidays!” says Jo (pictured above), a self-employed artist in Nuneaton who runs workshops at museums, makes her own artworks, and is studying for a PhD. Jo has two children at primary school and, during the summer holidays, she and her partner must juggle childcare and work for six weeks. 

Jo has looked into summer camps but daily fees of £50 for both children are intimidating, given that her earnings fluctuate and the hours she spends planning and pitching are unpaid. More importantly, she hasn’t seen clubs that she can book at relatively short notice “for a day here and there”, which would suit her type of career. If Jo is offered work on a weekday, she has to ring around relatives to see if someone can help out, as her partner works full-time and often can’t work from home.

Related Article: Summer holiday childcare: what can you do?

As schools break up for the summer this week, many working families are still stuck for how to cover the holidays. Only 27% of English local authorities have enough holiday childcare spaces for the parents in their area who work full-time, down 6% since last year, according to a report published today by the children’s charity Coram. For parents who live in rural areas, work atypical hours, or have children with a disability, this figure drops far lower.

If families do find a childcare space, cost is another issue. A place at a holiday club in England will cost £148 a week this summer on average, a rise of 5% since last year, the Coram report found. As the ongoing cost-of-living crisis pushes up all household bills, such price rises can be particularly hard for many families to bear.

The end result is that many parents have to reduce or halt their work altogether over the summer – and this burden often falls on mothers in particular. 

“I basically won’t earn for a month”

Gal in her office and kids playroom

Gal (pictured above), a self-employed entrepreneur and business coach in London, is taking most of August off to look after her two children.

“I basically won’t earn for a month, I’ll struggle that month. There’s nothing else to it,” says Gal, a single parent with a 5-year-old at school and a 3-year-old at nursery. “And it’s not just about [the money for that month] – if you’re not working, that’s when your competitors come in, that’s when your clients aren’t happy.”

Around 4 in 10 parents will need to take unpaid leave to manage childcare over the summer, according to a survey of 27,000 parents published today by Pregnant Then Screwed, a charity that campaigns for mothers’ rights. Over three-quarters of parents who can’t find enough summer childcare are concerned that this will limit their career prospects in the longer-term, the survey found.

If women have children, their careers and earnings continue to lag those of men even once their children reach school-age, data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown. The difficulties of finding both holiday and wraparound childcare are widely cited as one reason for this trend.

For the first two weeks of the summer break, Gal’s oldest child will go to an activities camp and her younger child will go to nursery. Her ex-partner will then have both children for one week. But after that, she can’t work until the schools re-open. 

Just like Jo the artist, Gal has struggled to find childcare that suits her needs. “Everything seems to be mimicking school times…it’s not flexible,” she says. “Something that’s just a few hours in the day, so they could have a great time and I could work, that would really carry me through.”

Gal adds that school-type timings also wouldn’t suit her children’s needs and wellbeing: “The point of a summer holiday is for children to have a break, so to throw them into a [full-day] camp for the whole six weeks defeats the point. I think it’s important for them to have a break.” 

For some mothers, summer clubs’ timings can pose a different problem – they aren’t open for long enough. “The childcare cover for summer holiday projects runs, at best, from 9am until 4pm,” says Bronya, a GP in London with a four-year-old daughter. Bronya’s partner, a business analyst who currently works from home, can sometimes collect their daughter and cover the “wraparound” hours, but he will soon start a new job that requires him to go into an office.

“My biggest headache is what are we going to do for 8-9am…and then for 4-6pm?” she says.

Providers emerging from a pandemic

The UK does not provide state-run holiday childcare. Instead the providers are a mix of private companies and individuals, charities, and schools, who all charge parents for this service. During the Covid pandemic many providers either couldn’t operate or saw demand drop sharply, and they have since struggled to regain their footing.

“We have found that quite a significant proportion [have closed] and may not ever re-open,” says Rebekah Jackson Reece at the Out of School Alliance, a membership organisation that represents 1,700 holiday and wraparound childcare providers in England. Some providers have struggled to get back on track this year as parents try to cut childcare bills during the cost-of-living crisis, while others have faced lower demand from parents who continue to work flexibly or remotely post-pandemic.

It is hard to find exact numbers on post-pandemic closures as there is no official register of holiday childcare providers. But English councils had been reporting slightly better availability every year since 2019 before the sudden 6% dip this year, according to previous Coram studies.

Working parents can use the “tax-free childcare” state subsidy, Universal Credit, or child tax credit to help with the costs of Ofsted-registered summer clubs, while families who qualify for free school meals are eligible for some free hours of holiday childcare and food. Some providers, such as King’s Camps, offer free or subsidised places through their own funding models.

The same, but different

In some towns and cities, there might not be less demand for holiday childcare – it might just be that the type of demand has changed. 

Mothers such as Jo, Gal and Bronya all want to find summer childcare. But they’ve struggled to find clubs with the flexible hours, or extended hours, or short-notice bookings that they need. They’ve also struggled with the fiddly process of arranging holiday care, which often involves going through lists of providers on council websites and contacting them one by one, rather than having a centralised app or booking system. 

“I just want to: search, filter, book, done,” says Gal, who as a single parent is particularly pressed for time. And even in two-parent families, Bronya notes that “the cognitive burden of all this tends to fall on the mums”, on top of managing their careers and day-to-day family duties. 

Jackson Reece at the Out of School Alliance encourages parents to ask local providers if they can cater for requests such as flexible hours. Providers will almost always help if they can, and such requests help their services to evolve. But she acknowledges that working parents are often too busy to explore options in this way.

“If parents are finding it hard to find the thing they’re looking for, what are they looking for? I think we as a sector need to understand that a little bit better. So that’s a piece of work that we need to do. To understand, actually, does childcare need to change?”

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