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‘What else can we cut out?’ Parents struggle with crippling childcare fees

Parents in England tell openDemocracy of remortgaging homes or taking on second jobs to pay for rising childcare fees

Lauren Crosby Medlicott
6 December 2022, 12.00pm

Protesters in London attend the ‘March of the Mummies’ to demand the government tackles rising childcare costs, 29 October 2022

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Vuk Valcic/Alamy Live News

When Jenni Ellis opened the letter from her 17-month-old’s nursery, she felt heartbroken. The secondary school teacher has already remortgaged her home to pay for her children’s childcare – and now she’s been told the fees will be rising again in the new year.

Ellis and her husband spend around £1,900 per month on childcare for their three kids – around the same amount they receive in one of their salaries – and will struggle to afford the increased fees.

“We’re just about making ends meet,” Ellis, who lives on the south coast of England, told openDemocracy. “My parents can’t help, so the kids have to go into childcare.”

The 35-year-old’s two older children attend breakfast and after-school clubs, which costs £15 a day per child. But the family’s biggest daily outlay is the £62 a day they pay for their youngest to attend nursery from 7.30am to 4pm.

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“A couple of weeks ago, we had a beautifully worded letter from the nursery saying they were just about staying afloat and that the fee would be going up to £70 in the new year,” said Ellis.

That’s an increase of almost 13%, roughly an extra £160 per month. The current rate of inflation in the UK is 11.1%, with the Bank of England not expecting it to fall until the middle of 2023.

The stress of money worries now hangs over Ellis “all the time”. She’s already taken up a second job as a tutor outside school hours. She doesn’t know what else to do.

Ellis’s story will be a familiar one for many parents across the country.

In England, all three- and four-year-olds receive at least 15 hours of free childcare per week during school term times (38 weeks of the year). This rises to 30 hours a week for parents who work at least 16 hours a week at minimum wage or higher and whose household income is less than £100,000.

The minimum amount the central government pays to local authorities to fund this childcare is £4.61 per child per hour. Yet, on average, childcare providers charge £5.39 an hour for three- and four-year-olds, according to a 2021 government survey of childcare and early years providers in England.

This means these ‘free’ hours for parents are not free for early years providers, who say the payment provided to fund them does not match the cost of delivery.

We haven’t had a holiday in years. We don’t get takeaways. We go to Aldi. We buy everything second-hand. What else can we cut?

“Nurseries are underfunded by the government,” said Lauren Fabianski, communications and campaigns manager at Pregnant Then Screwed, a charity that supports pregnant people and new parents. “For every government-funded place, nurseries have a funding shortfall which they need to fill through nursery fees.”

Claire Kenyon, the owner of The Children’s Garden, which runs two Montessori nurseries in Lincolnshire and Norwich, told openDemocracy that childcare providers are struggling to stay afloat for several reasons. They have to pay business rates, can’t claim back VAT on purchases and are facing soaring costs for electricity, food and rent.

“We are an incredibly giving community of people who are on our knees,” Kenyon said. “The early childhood education sector is grossly underfunded.”

Fabianski agreed, saying: “We are now in a recession, with cost-of-living hikes including electricity bills going through the roof, and yet zero additional support to nurseries from the government – they don't really stand a chance.

“So they need to pass those increases on to parents. The blame lies firmly at the door of Number 10.”

All of this leaves parents like Ellis worrying about how they will find the extra cash to pay fees.

“We are already frugal,” Ellis told openDemocracy. “We haven’t had a holiday in years. We don’t get takeaways. We go to Aldi. We don’t waste any food. We buy everything second-hand. What else can we cut out?”

When her youngest turns three, Ellis knows she will qualify for subsidised childcare, but resents that she is counting down the days until their finances aren’t as tight.

“I don’t want to wish her life away,” she said. “She is my last baby and I really want to enjoy her, but this pressure is insane.”

‘Trimming back everywhere we can’

In a recent poll of 3,407 parents by Pregnant Then Screwed, 83% of respondents reported that their nursery fees have increased in the past two months or will increase in the next two. More than a third said their fees have risen by at least 10%.

One such parent is Becky Donnelly. When Donnelly was told her son’s daily nursery fees would jump from £62.50 to £69.50 – an increase of 11% – in the new year, her stomach dropped.

“My son has settled in and he enjoys his nursery,” she said. “We can’t just say that we can’t afford the rise and try a different nursery. They are all under the same pressure.”

Later, the nursery sent a follow-up email, saying the January rise is an interim measure, with another increase coming in July.

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Donnelly, who travels to London from Birmingham to work in the charity sector, doesn’t want to simply look for the cheapest nursery available. “It’s not like getting a budget airline flight, where you have to put up with bad service,” she said. “It’s the one thing where you don’t want to settle for the cheapest option.”

Donnelly and her husband have decided to keep their son in his current placement and absorb the extra cost. “We’re trimming back everywhere we can,” she said. “It just feels like every single part of my life at the moment is under a squeeze. We’re now looking at different jobs to try and balance the books.”

Can’t afford to work

Pregnant Then Screwed has received an influx of calls from parents like Ellis and Donnelly who are worried that the increased fees will mean they can’t afford to work any longer.

“We're hearing from mothers who are being forced to leave wanted careers because they can't afford to pay to work,” said Fabianski. “Fifty-seven per cent of parents are having to reduce their hours and their earnings, buckling under the pressure of childcare bills.

“A third of new parents have made the decision they can't afford to have more children, and 61% of women who have aborted a wanted pregnancy say that childcare costs played a role in that decision.

“We're also hearing from mothers who are turning to food banks for the first time to be able to put food on the table. Some mothers are even turning to sex work that they wouldn’t otherwise undertake to make ends meet. It's truly heartbreaking – and it shouldn't be this way.”

As of 2018, some 870,000 mothers are out of work because of childcare issues, according to the charity Save the Children, and a further 1.7 million have had to reduce their hours to make finances work.

Nurseries need to pass cost increases on to parents. The blame lies firmly at the door of Number 10

Lauren Fabianski, Pregnant Then Screwed

“These numbers are going to keep getting bigger. Short-term, this will destroy the lives of thousands of families, plunging more and more children into poverty,” said Fabianski, as well as having a long-term effect on the economy.

In order to make childcare and early years education work in the UK, “we need to understand, first and foremost, that childcare funding is an investment, not a cost,” Fabianski added. “We need to invest in mothers, families and the sector that enables parents to thrive – before it’s too late.”

‘We’re living month by month’

Harriet Doran was recently informed by her two-year-old’s nursery that fees are rising in January. “They were really apologetic about having to increase their fee from £15 per three-hour session to £17.50,” Doran said. “It’s just another added pressure.”

Doran, who lives in Essex, is working two jobs – as a nurse and university lecturer – while her husband works nights to reduce the hours they need childcare.

With their first child in school and a third due in the new year, Doran is worried about how they are going to manage with the cost of everything, including nursery fees, going up.

I don’t know how we’re going to be able to afford anything this time next year. It just feels precarious

“We are just shopping at budget supermarkets, looking out for food with reduced labels, not eating out. We’re just living month by month, without any savings,” she explained.

“I don’t know how we’re going to be able to afford anything this time next year. It just feels precarious.”

Most days, Harriet asks herself if she should just leave work so she can stay at home with her kids and avoid having to pay for childcare. “But I can’t afford not to work either,” she said. “We don’t have a choice.”

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