A major expansion of free childcare has been greeted with mixed reactions from parents who have already given up their careers or are grappling with the cost of living crisis – as they say the changes have come too late for them and thousands of families.
In the Budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt confirmed free childcare for working parents in England will be expanded to children aged nine months and above from September 2025, in a move designed to get more people back to work.
However, while some parents are delighted and have welcomed the measure as long over, others feel the change has come too late for those who have sacrificed their careers, and have expressed their concern that there is a considerable wait for the funding to be implemented.
Rachel Devereux, who has four children, tells i she had no choice in not returning to work after realising she would actually put herself into debt doing so.
She and husband Martin have Thor, eight, Artemis, six, and three-year-old twins Hero and Apollo.
“I did some sums and realised it would cost me around £40,000 to put my children into childcare full time,” explains nurse Rachel, 38, who lives in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire with their four children.
“That is the cost of putting all four of them into childcare: full-time nursery for the twins and wraparound care of before and after school and holiday clubs for my other two.
“The real cost after the tax free childcare was around £33,000, but after taking into consideration things like travelling to work, your lunch, parking for work and washing your uniforms, I realised going to work would put me in debt.”
Rachel, whose husband works away during the week a lot, explains they don’t have a lot of grandparent support because they are either still working or retired and older so would find it too much to look after twins. “It is a full-on job looking after one child, so two would be too much for them,” she says.
“Having to give up my nursing career was a hard decision, but because it would have actually cost me money to go to work, I had no other choice as I felt I had to at least take something from my hours away from my children.”
Rachel admits she has mixed emotions at the childcare announcements made in the Budget which include all eligible under-fives getting 30 free hours of childcare from September 2025.
“It is fantastic because it’s going to mean more parents can get back to work if they want to,” she says. “If this had been in place for me, it would have made it possible for me to return to work.
“The childcare changes announced in the Budget make me feel mixed emotions. I feel sad that this didn’t happen for us and I didn’t have this opportunity. But I feel happy that other parents won’t have to juggle and struggle like I have.
“This is going to make a massive difference to parents by not having to pay the equivalent of a second mortgage in childcare costs.
“If they want to, they will be able to go back to work and be able to contribute to society and use their skills without getting in debt for the privilege of working and paying into their pension.”
Rachel is the founder of Parent Sanctuary in Huddersfield, which supports the emotional, physical and mental health of families by encouraging parents to connect with the outdoors and nature.
“I came up with this idea and set it up during lockdown as I realised that if I wanted to bring any income into the family and have a sense of self-worth, I needed to think about something different.
“But I have to work while having my children with me all the time and now my twins are three, it is getting harder to do this and they won’t get their 30 free hours of childcare until after Easter.
“The childcare changes will give them the flexibility to work if they choose and to do what is right for their family.”
Rachel says she does have some reservations about how the extended free childcare initiative will work and is concerned it might have a negative impact on childcare providers. “My fear is about how this will impact childcare providers,” she says. “At the moment, I know they use the fees they get from the one and two-year-olds to subsidise the places for the three and four-year-olds.
“It makes me wonder if these changes are going to put childcare providers in an even more difficult position where they have to bring in less-qualified people to look after our children.”
She adds: “Even though I find childcare expensive, I don’t think childcare providers are paid enough. I think they deserve more because it’s not an easy job looking after children.”
Charlotte Jansingh, a mother-of-two from Rochester, Kent, sees her entire monthly take home pay swallowed up by nursery costs despite earning a good salary as a legal assistant. She only made the decision to return to work despite “essentially earning nothing” because her employer is paying for her to do a diploma which will enhance her career progression.
Charlotte, who is married with daughter Raye, four, and 19-month-old son Laurie, welcomes the Budget news about extended free childcare and is delighted it will make a difference to parents in the future.
However, she says the move comes “too late” to help her family and she can’t understand why there will be a delay before the changes come into play, when many families are struggling financially now.
Jeremy Hunt announced that the new care for parents in England will be introduced in stages. Working parents of two-year-olds will get 15 hours of free care from April 2024. This will be followed by children from nine months getting 15 hours free childcare from September 2024. Ultimately, all eligible under-fives will get 30 hours free childcare from September 2025
“I think it’s great that these changes are coming and that parents are going to be able to get free childcare from when their child is nine-months-old,” says Charlotte. “But they’re not bringing it in until April 2024, so it will be too late to make a difference to our family.
“My son will turn three in July 2024 when he will get the free 30 hours anyway, so by the time these changes come in, we won’t get any additional support between now and then.
“I think it is brilliant that the Government is doing this and that change is coming. But I feel they should be doing it now because the cost of living crisis is happening now and parents are struggling at the moment, especially with nursery fees having gone up so much.
“While this childcare announcement in the Budget is great for those thinking about starting a family or planning another child, it does not address the issue for parents who are struggling now.”
In his Budget, Mr Hunt also announced the Government will change minimum staff-to-child ratios from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds in England, to give childcare providers more flexibility and to bring it in line with Scotland. However, he confirmed the new ratio would remain optional for providers.
Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, which campaigns to end the motherhood penalty, says: “Just three years ago, we would talk to ministers about childcare and they would look at us like we were speaking Klingon. It was of no interest to those in power.
“To go from there to childcare being the main event in the Spring Budget shows the power of collective action and we are elated to hear that the childcare sector will now receive a significant investment.
“Parents of young children felt ignored, but this will restore their faith in democracy so we thank ministers for hearing our cry and bridging the gap for mothers from the end of maternity leave so that they are supported to be able to work.
“However, we are concerned that the money pledged is not enough to reduce costs for parents sustainably. It is imperative that there is a clear and remunerated strategy to attract more educators into the sector, to retain those workers and to offer progression opportunities.
“Without a workforce plan providers will continue to be forced to close, and increasing ratios will be detrimental to staff retention. What they need is better pay which will come from significant investment into the sector and into the rollout of the free-hours scheme.
“Free childcare from nine months is brilliant, but only if there are childcare settings to be able to access this care, without the correct funding there won’t be.”