Sara Bustillo de Castro, a London-based consultant, is set to return to her native Spain this summer because childcare is so expensive. “We’re going to move back to Madrid in August because we can’t make it work with childcare being so expensive and unreliable,” she says.
Mrs de Castro, who previously spent a decade in France as an aerospace engineer, says: “I couldn’t understand why I was struggling to go back to work in the UK after having my second child when I hadn’t struggled in France after my first. Why it was so difficult for a woman to go back to work?”
Mrs de Castro says one reason is the lack of government funding and public nurseries seen in countries like France. The UK’s “30 free hours a week” provision only kicks in at age three, and nurseries are forced to increase fees for one- and two-year-olds to cover the cost because of a funding shortfall, she pointed out.
Some experts fear that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt‘s £4bn cash injection won’t be enough to cover his promised extension of free hours to one- and two-year-olds, meaning that prices will have to be hiked for the remaining paid-for hours.
Another issue in the UK is the difficulty finding staff to work in nurseries, which Mrs de Castro blames on low pay, hard work and Brexit making it tougher for immigrants to come in. “It has become quite ingrained that mums stay at home and don’t work. But for many of them, it’s not by choice, it’s just because they can’t pay for childcare otherwise,” she adds.
Mrs de Castro, whose book on childcare entitled The Power of Where: International Careers and Modern Parenting is set to be published in September, did note that staff-to-child ratios are higher in Spain. Ofsted mandates one adult for every three babies, and one adult for four toddlers – while in Spain, it is one adult for eight babies. The UK is set to relax the ratio for two-year-olds to 1:5, which has raised concerns among parents.
Nicola Brooks swapped Liverpool for the Costa Blanca to give her daughter Grace a better quality of life. Ms Brooks paid £60 per day in childcare when Grace was two – 10 years ago. “I also have a two-year-old granddaughter and my daughter-in-law does a part-time job which just covers the cost of childcare. The cost of childcare in the UK is phenomenal,” she said.
In Spain, a nanny normally costs between €800 and €1,000 (£700-875) per month. Working mothers receive €100 per month childcare benefits and are entitled to a €1,000 annual payment for kindergarten. State nurseries for children aged 16 weeks and above are cheap compared to the UK.
Figures show the UK is by far the most expensive country in Europe for childcare, with a recent survey carried out by the charity Pregnant The Screwed finding that it costs on average £14,000 a year, and can consume up to 75 per cent of parent incomes.
In European Union countries, up to 90 per cent of children aged three to five, and one-third of children under the age of three enjoy childcare, with the net cost at 14 per cent of a women’s median wage for a middle-income two-earner couple, 11 per cent for low-income couples and seven to nine percent for single parents. That compares to almost 52 per cent of median female earnings in the United Kingdom, according to OECD data.
In Germany, the average cost of childcare for an entire year is only €1,310 (£1,149).
While costs vary across the country, in Berlin, besides the 23 euros per month for lunch, childcare from 12 months is free for up to nine hours per day, depending on parents’ working hours.
Liz Gray, a 40-year-old British mum of two who has been living in Berlin since 2009, said it was “fantastic” that childcare was free. But she was told to book a place as soon as possible.
“Friends told us how to phrase emails. We were told to call at this time, but not another. It was almost like a casting. It was insane,” Ms Gray said.
There are estimated to be around 383,000 too few nursery places across Germany, according to a study carried out by the German non-profit foundation, the Bertelsmann Stiftung. In Berlin, the number is 17,000.
“In the UK, I hear friends talk about the nurseries they have chosen to send their children to. Here, you are just begging them to take you,” said Ms Gray.
Louise Osborne, a journalist living in Berlin, said that when she heard about the free hours, she was “amazed, particularly given the horror stories I’d heard about costs in the UK”.
“And I was hugely relieved, knowing that I wouldn’t be held back from going back to a job I love because I chose to have a child,” she added.
But she said friends warned her to start applying for places while she was still pregnant if she wanted to guarantee a place for her child. The country also battles with a lack of nursery teachers and a complicated bureaucratic system that can be particularly hard to navigate for migrant families.
Natalie Hill, a British photographer based in Brussels says she was “genuinely super-happy” with the childcare for her daughter, Elba, now five. The local communal creches give priority to lower-income families, so Natalie and her wife Valeria used private childcare, at €700 (£614) a month. “It was a chunk, but compared to the UK, very manageable,” she says. “And although we had to take her out for a bit as she was ill, they were amazing, and kept our place.”
Alex Green, a British senior finance executive based in Bern, Switzerland and father of three pays CHF1,100 (£975) per month for his youngest child. Mr Green, who lived in Amsterdam for nine years until 2021, praises the Dutch system as “very well structured, well organised and everyone can get a space – and way better than in the UK.”
While most childcare providers in the Netherlands are private and costs can reach 80 per cent of median female earnings, most of this is reimbursed by the government.
A survey of nursery prices in eight Italian cities found the average monthly cost was €620 (£544), and over €750 (£658) in Milan, Italy’s most expensive city, where public nurseries are free for low income families.
Valentina Russo, a British-Italian dance teacher with two children aged five and 18 months, said she missed the deadline for sending her first child, Elia, to a public nursery in Milan, but managed to get him into a bilingual English and Italian one. She paid €550 (£482) a month to have him there for half a day.
“It can cost 700 to 800 euros (£700) for a full day at private nurseries,” Mrs. Russo said. “That’s nearly a full wage. It’s no wonder a lot of mums decide it makes more sense to stay at home rather than work.”
Most Italian local authorities award places in public nurseries with a points-based system, using criteria such as income, family size, whether the child has disabilities and whether the parents work.
Fernanda Aguirre, originally from Chile, is a stay-at-home mum in Milan and has two children, aged three and one. She said local authorities penalise non-working parents when assigning places for public nurseries, forcing them to pay for private ones.
“The Italian system does not help mums,” said Mrs. Aguirre, 39. “It is a vicious cycle: in order to work you need to be able to send your child to nursery, and in order to have access to nursery you need to work.
“I think even the private system is at collapsing point. I made an inquiry at one nursery that had a waiting time of two years.”
However, Janna Brancolini, a 36-year-old American journalist in Milan, who has a seven-month-old child at a private nursery, said Italian childcare has strong points.
“On the flipside they’re really good about food,” she said. “They are absolutely fanatical about providing healthy diets and teaching kids to like different types of food.”