NewsPatching up childcare

Patching up childcare

Expensive childcare and an inflexible system are having a tough impact on families, and government support must be unlocked, campaigners say. Journalist Kaye McIntosh reports*.

There is a crisis in childcare. Parents are struggling, particularly women. Campaigners, charities, economists and politicians agree costs are too high. Childcare is so expensive that six out of 10 women who had an abortion in the past five years cited cost as a factor in their decision, according to a survey by Pregnant Then Screwed (PTS, 2022a).

Children’s charity Coram (2022) says: ‘[Childcare] remains a deeply flawed patchwork system that makes it hard for families to get the support they need and forces some parents – particularly mothers – out of the workforce entirely.’

In October 2022, more than 12,000 parents took to the streets around the UK to demand change in the March of the Mummies. Lauren Fabianski, head of campaigns at organisers PTS, says: ‘A lot of women are unable to return to the workplace – who want to – because two-thirds of families are paying, according to our research, the same amount for childcare as their rent or their housing [PTS, 2022b]. So it’s really making families struggle financially. We know it’s making families turn to foodbanks. We know it’s stopping families from having more children that want more children.’

She describes the survey finding on childcare influencing women’s decision to end their pregnancy as ‘a really shocking statistic’.

A survey of nearly 2000 childcare providers by the Early Years Alliance found 72% said government funding for two-year-olds did not cover costs, while 86% said funding for three- to four-year-olds was insufficient (Early Years Alliance, 2022).

Why is it so expensive?

While ‘international comparisons are hard’ regarding childcare costs, says Christine Farquharson, senior economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the UK is probably among the top three most expensive countries. ‘It’s clear that it’s staggering,’ she says.

So why are childcare costs so high? Campaigners blame the government. ‘It is definitely an investment and a funding issue,’says Lauren. While three- and four-year-olds get 30 free hours a week, the state offers far less at other ages (see Government help with childcare costs, right). And parents don’t even know about, or claim, some funding. Christine says: ‘Only 40% of parents with a pre-school-age child have even heard of tax-free childcare.”

Treasury figures in 2021 revealed a £2.4bn underspend on tax-free childcare since the scheme began five years ago (UK Parliament, 2021). Parents who start to claim Universal Credit have to wait weeks before childcare costs are refunded – a huge barrier for those who are struggling.

Christine says that as a result ‘take-up rates are very low, and a lot of families find it very difficult to access the support that they should be entitled to’.

Women bear the brunt

The impact of all this is particularly severe for women because they are typically the lower earners in any family. Lauren says the motherhood penalty – lower wages and slower career progression – starts when women take maternity leave, while men only qualify for two weeks statutory paternity leave. ‘Men are returning to work. The responsibility of childcare is put on women from that point onwards and it never really lifts, even if a woman does go back to work.’

Unite National Women’s Officer (seconded) Alison Spencer-Scragg adds: ‘Women are automatically still seen as the main care providers.’ The gender pay gap goes up after motherhood, she explains. The overall pay gap in April 2022 was 8.3%.

But for women in their 40s – who are much more likely to be mothers – the full-time gender pay gap is much higher, at over 10.9% (Office for National Statistics, 2022).

Government help with childcare costs

There is a complex system of different schemes across the UK, depending on the child’s age and factors such as family income, disabilities and additional needs. Some of the main elements are:


  • All children aged three and four in England are eligible for 15 hours of early education a week.
  • Working parents of three- and four-year-olds in England can claim 30 free hours a week for 38 weeks a year. They must earn at least minimum wage.


  • Three- and four-year-olds can get up to 30 hours of early education a week in term time. Some two-year-olds are eligible.

Northern Ireland

  • In the year before children start primary school, most places will be available at least two and a half hours per day, five days per week.


  • Three- and four-year-olds can get up to 30 hours of early education a week, for up to 48 weeks of the year.


  • Tax-free childcare pays up to £2000 a year for each child aged under 11, for parents earning at least minimum wage for 16 hours a week.


* The Big Story was written and compiled before the Spring 2023 Budget.
For policy updates since the Spring Budget 2023 – see

Worse-off children lag behind

Childcare problems don’t just affect family income and women’s ability to work. Disadvantaged children reach fewer developmental milestones when they start school than better-off kids. There is an attainment gap of four and a half months in primary schools (Hutchinson et al, 2019).

Coram (2022) says: ‘Government-funded early education entitlements are a key tool in reducing this gap, and so it is essential that it is taken up by disadvantaged children who stand to benefit the most.’

MPs are increasingly concerned, and the Education Select Committee is launching an inquiry into the cost of childcare. Chair Robin Walker says: ‘The childcare sector is intrinsically important because it has the potential to allow millions of parents to continue with their careers while giving young children a huge head start in their pre-school education. 

‘It’s vital that we identify solutions to the range of problems and challenges facing the childcare sector, understand why the costs have become too dear for many families, and see what the government could do to raise the esteem, affordability and quality of early years education.

‘As many have pointed out, getting this right could be a huge boost for the UK’s productivity and the welfare of its future generations.’ He adds there is ‘cross-party hunger to fix childcare’ (UK Parliament, 2022).

Shake it up

Unite-CPVHA wants to see a huge shake-up of the system: nothing less than universal, free childcare. Alison says: ‘We pay taxes. We’ve got a free healthcare system and free education, so we want free childcare.’ That wouldn’t mean state-run nurseries, but ‘whatever childcare the parents choose’. One size doesn’t fit all, she adds.

Until that is in prospect, there are still steps the government, and employers, could take, she says. Companies struggling to recruit need to look at subsidised workplace nurseries and flexible working.

Currently the law says you must be in your job for 26 weeks before you can even request flexible working, and you can only make one request in any 12-month period. Although some employers do better, there’s no legal right to anything beyond this. Employers can also turn down requests for business reasons. Unite-CPVHA wants flexible working to be available from day one and spelled out in job advertisements so you know the score before you even apply.

In the meantime, the union is pulling together a database of employers to see what is happening on the ground. ‘We are hoping to see employers that have actually made progress in terms of looking at more inventive ways that people can work and challenging where employers are just carte blanche saying no to any level of flexibility,’ says Alison.

Often, women want to do condensed hours, she says, rather than go part-time. The cost of living crisis means they can’t afford to work less; but working longer, fewer days would cut down on childcare costs.

The government made a manifesto commitment to supporting parents, she points out. A consultation on proposals to update the system for early years funding in England for 2023-24 closed in December 2021. A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said: ‘A response will be published in due course.

‘We continue to review all options to improve the cost, choice and availability of high-quality childcare for working parents, which remains a priority for this government.

‘We have spent more than £20bn over the past five years to support families with the cost of childcare, and the number of places available in England has remained stable since 2015, with thousands of parents benefiting from this support.’

It’s clear that campaigners, economists, charities and parents think this is far from enough. Lauren says: ‘It’s very bleak. Households are being forced into poverty.’ The current system is ‘completely unsustainable’, she adds. Something surely has to change – and action can’t come soon enough for thousands of struggling parents across the country.

How can CPs help?

The childcare funding system is fiendishly complex. If you can point parents towards sources of advice, that could make a real difference. Find a guide outlining support for different circumstances (select specific UK country from drop-down menu) at


* The Big Story was written and compiled before the Spring Budget 2023.


Coleman L, Shorto S, Ben-Galim D. (2022) Childcare survey 2022. Coram. See: (accessed 30 January 2023). 

Coram. (2022) Coram family and childcare survey 2022. See: (accessed 30 January 2023). 

Early Years Alliance. (2022) Government underfunding drives rising childcare costs as cost-of-living crisis hits the early years sector, new Alliance survey reveals. See: (accessed 30 January 2023). 

Hutchinson, J., Bonetti, S, Crenna-Jennings W et al. (2019) Education in England: annual report 2019. Education Policy Institute. See: (accessed 30 January 2023). 

OECD. (2023) Net childcare costs. See: (accessed 30 January 2023). 

ONS. (2022) Gender pay gap in the UK: 2022. See: (accessed 30 January 2023). 

Pregnant Then Screwed. (2022a) Six in 10 women who have had an abortion claim childcare costs influenced their decision. See: (accessed 30 January 2023). 

Pregnant Then Screwed. (2022b) One in four parents have had to cut down on heat, food and clothing to pay for childcare. See: (accessed 30 January 2023). 

UK Parliament. (2021) Children: day care. See: (accessed 30 January 2023). 

UK Parliament. (2022) Education Committee launches inquiry into childcare affordability and early years education. See: (accessed 30 January 2022).

Image credit | Shutterstock


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