Childcare costs forced us out of work, along with 32,000 women last year

If the news last week that a tenth of parents are ‘paying to work’ wasn’t enough proof of a UK childcare crisis in full force, then newly-released figures just might be. 

New ONS statistics have shown that 32,000 women left the workforce last year to look after their kids.

And it all makes perfect sense when you dig into the eye-watering figures.

It’s estimated that full-time nursery fees for a child under two total around £13,000 per year – which is more than half of an average £33,000 salary.

In fact, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, childcare in the UK is among the most expensive in the world.

Throw in a cost of living crisis with rising food prices, petrol and household bills, and it’s a lot for families to contend with.

Hayley Timson, from Horsham, is one parent who has been forced to give up work.

The 48-year-old was a full-time police officer when she realised that being responsible for her twins and her elderly parents would make full-time work impossible.

Her wife currently works full-time in school leadership to support their family.

Hayley says: ‘Our income has taken a big hit, but we weighed it up and agreed this as a family, to prevent a costly care home that my parents really didn’t want.

‘To be honest, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t do this – but as the children get older, I might consider a local part-time job.’

Likewise Jemima Cainer, a mum-of-three based in Saltburn-by-the-Sea, explains that, after her third child, returning to work wasn’t financially viable.

She says: ‘Childcare costs have been something I’ve had to contend with for each of my kids. But after my third child came along in 2021 I was seriously shocked to see just how much nursery fees had increased in my local area over the last few years: around £1,000 a month. I looked for more affordable alternatives, like childminding, but there were barely any childminders operating nearby.

‘My original plan was to go back to work after my maternity leave ended – just as I had done with my first two kids. 

‘My career has always revolved around children and families and I was running the SEND department at a local secondary school at the time. But, when it came to it, I found that simply wasn’t financially viable to return to work full-time. Some days I literally wasn’t making any money. It just felt pointless working long weeks and still being out of pocket.

‘On top of that, I was seriously missing my kids after spending so much time with them during my maternity leave. I couldn’t see the sense in it any longer, so I left my job.’

Since then, Jemima has actually retrained to become a childminder – after identifying a huge problem within the childcare system.

She says: ‘The move has allowed me to earn an income while staying home and taking care of my children and those of local families in my community. 

‘The demand I’ve experienced for my services has genuinely been huge and I think it speaks to just how much parents are desperate for affordable, local childcare.’

Angie*, from St Albans, who is disabled, was made redundant after asking for flexi-time when she came back from maternity leave.

She was previously the breadwinner in her family but for the past few years she’s been looking after her children full-time, because of steep childcare costs, while her husband works.

Angie says: ‘It’s an impossible situation for me because I probably won’t get another job now because I’ve been away for so long – but you’re away from work for so long because you can’t get childcare.

‘And I can’t even change my line of work or anything and, say, become a teaching assistant where a salary is between £20-£30k, because that won’t even cover nursery fees.

‘It’s not even about “making financial sense”. I simply wouldn’t be able to pay for a nursery – as it’s an additional cost on top of my wages. ‘

Free childcare for working parents in England is expected to be expanded in Wednesday’s Budget to cover one and two-year-olds, but some have aired concerns that it will not be enough to make a difference.

Sharon Peake, a chartered workplace psychologist and founder of gender equity consultancy Shape Talent, says it’s estimated that childcare is costing UK parents more than two-thirds of their salaries – with full-time childcare (50 hours a week) costing on average £14,000.

And with this issue forcing women to give up their careers, it’s going to have a knock-on effect on gender equality.

She explains: ‘But it’s not just the affordability that is a problem for parents, but the resulting actions.

‘If primary caregivers can’t afford childcare, or there’s no availability, it will push many primary caregivers out of work which will be detrimental for gender equality in industries across the board. Furthermore, parents will feel even more excluded and alienated by their workplace. 

‘In light of this, organisations must consider how they can better support parents and caregivers in the workplace who are affected by the childcare crisis.’

Not only this, but founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, Joeli Brearley, adds that a solo income makes things incredibly difficult for families – especially during a cost of living crisis.

Joeli says: ‘For three quarters of mothers, it no longer makes financial sense for them to work. As a result, women are falling out of the workplace and into poverty. It’s impossible for most families to survive without two incomes, yet we’ve created a scenario where too often, women can’t work or have to work fewer hours than they want to.

‘There are an estimated 1.7 million women who are prevented from taking on more hours of paid work due to childcare issues, and over a million women who are considered to be “economically inactive” due to caring. It’s honestly embarrassing how far behind other countries we are on this. 

‘Pretty much every other country in the developed world understands that investing in childcare is an investment in the economy, it more than pays for itself in the short term whilst having long term benefits on children’s outcomes.’

Sadly, it’s yet another example of the cost of living crisis disproportionately impacting women – the topic of our current series: The Cost of Being a Woman.

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The Cost of Being a Woman

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