I’m a mother of three boys who has spent approximately £90,000 on childcare in the past five years so it will come as no surprise to read that I’ve signed every petition and supported every campaign calling for more financial support for working parents.
Our now six year old and four-year-old twins have all been in childcare since they were around one. We’re lucky that in the part of south London where we live there is a choice of lovely places to send our children which will keep them safe, happy and stimulated. But it comes at a cost – £80 per day, per child.
Our twins attend four days a week which means that even with the free hours we get (since they turned three), our nursery bill is still higher than our monthly mortgage repayments. They start at school in September and it can’t come soon enough, we’ll feel like millionaires!
Before I became a parent I had no idea how hard it would be to maintain my career as a freelance journalist and look after young children. Shows like Motherland which show parents – read, mums – trying to manage work and home life and feeling like they’re doing both badly, really is the reality for many of us.
But, I want to work. I want to set an example to my three boys to show that we live in a time of equal opportunities where parents can share the childcare responsibility and have careers.
Research by the amazing Pregnant Then Screwed, an organisation dedicated to ending the motherhood penalty, has shown that for three quarters of women it makes no financial sense for them to work. Pregnant Then Screwed has fought so hard to make the government understand the economic and social impact of this inequality in so many homes.
Their perseverance has been inspirational and admirable but a lot of us gave up hope of this government ever prioritising this key issue. So I was completely shocked when the news of Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s Budget announcement for childcare was leaked on Tuesday and I know I wasn’t alone.
The new policy, confirmed in Wednesday’s Budget, will permit free childcare of 30 hours a week for children over the age of nine months and will be implemented in full from September 2025. While it’s too late for me and my family to benefit from Mr Hunt’s plans, I feel tentatively excited for the parents who will. But as with all of these headline-making announcements, it will come down to the detail and caveats.
The 30 free hours provision which currently exists for three year olds is actually only applicable for 38 weeks of the year as it’s term time only, although some places may allow you to stretch it over 52 weeks.
It’s also worth noting that your free hours do not start on your child’s birthday but on the 1st January, 1st April and 1st September. This means some families have to wait three months to start the scheme which is frustrating.
The Chancellor has also suggested that he plans to relax the ratios of staff to children from 1:4 to 1:5 (one adult to every five children rather than four) which worries me. I have three children and I know how quickly they can get up to mischief, hurt themselves or make a horrific mess. Imagine a room with 20 two year olds and how much can go wrong in a 10-hour nursery day. The ratios are there to keep children safe and to ensure they get the attention they need.
I was also encouraged to hear about the plan to increase council funding for wraparound care in schools because while life for working parents might get cheaper when their children start school, it doesn’t get any easier.
In January when we were applying for schools for our twins, the main topic of conversation among friends was not SATs results or how much homework they’d get, but if there was adequate wraparound care or not. These are parents with full-time jobs who will need to drop their kids off at Breakfast Club at 7.30am and collect them at 6pm. My son’s school finishes for the day at 3.20pm so wraparound care is essential for us. I know of schools in the area which can only take 45 children per day from the whole school and the cost is £20 for each afternoon session. Once again, it all adds up.
Of course, this is just during term time. The school holidays are another headache for working parents and it’s amazing (frustrating) how fast they seem to come around. My husband only has 25 days of annual leave which means that I end up doing more of the holiday childcare as I’m self-employed. But not working means no pay – the career sacrifices feel endless.
Obviously the devil is in the details but the best thing about the announcement is that it gives women and their partners a choice. I’ve felt resentment, sadness and panic that I’ve not been able to pursue the career goals I’ve wanted to due to my lack of flexibility when it comes to childcare. If this long-awaited investment can help women avoid that and help them balance work and parenting then it’s certainly something worth celebrating – albeit tentatively.