MUM-of-two Keri Rock would like to work more hours, but can’t afford the extra childcare fees for her son Fraser, three, and daughter Grace, 18 months.
“I feel physically sick with anxiety about our financial situation,” says Keri, from Swanage, Dorset.
The 34 year-old health coach and her husband James, 37, who works in gaming, pay £500 per month for Grace to attend childcare two days per week.
Fraser qualifies for 30 Government-funded hours in nursery from 9am to 3pm, three and a half days per week – but his parents would need to find another £500 per month for him to be there full time.
“I don’t know how you’re supposed to work full time,” says Keri, who runs child sleep and health consultancy, Mysleepinggrace.com.
Now, Keri faces losing James’ free nursery hours for the next three months.
That’s because she wasn’t able to work enough last month to meet the minimum income threshold due to the children falling ill and having to look after them.
Parents need to reconfirm their income every three months to qualify for support.
“I need to be able to work more days each week to earn enough to qualify for free childcare hours, but I can’t because we don’t get enough childcare hours – I feel trapped,” she says.
Unfair and expensive childcare costs mean three quarters of mums say it no longer makes financial sense to work, new research has found.
It means thousands of parents are paying to work, according to campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed.
Next month parents will come under extra pressure as fees are set to jump up by an average of £1,000 a year.
Childcare costs Jordan Eley, 38, and her husband Richard, 41, more than their mortgage.
The couple’s two sons, aged four and 20 months, are in childcare four days per week.
Although the eldest qualifies for 30 free hours, their total monthly bill still costs £750 – even more than their £700-a-month mortgage payments.
The couple, who run the Hounds and Hooves dog training centre in Dorset www.houndshooves.com, have been forced to stop working on Wednesdays and take turns working weekends instead to save money on childcare.
“We’re doing what we can to reduce the childcare bill as it’s our single biggest outgoing,” explains Jordan.
Here are the key problems families are facing and what help is needed from the Government in this week’s Budget.
Mums are paying to go back to work
One in four parents say childcare costs swallow more than half of their total household income – while one in ten say the bill is higher than their earnings.
Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant then Screwed, the group which carried out the research, says: “Parents can’t pay to work – it doesn’t make sense.”
Campaigners say Government schemes to help parents with costs don’t start early enough to help mums back to work after maternity leave, which usually ends when a child is between nine and 12 months old.
For example, 15 free hours in childcare is typically only available for children aged two whose families are on Universal Credit.
While the 30 free hours scheme is only available for children aged three, whose families work at least 16 hours per week on minimum wage.
The Department for Education has proposed that the scheme be extended to cover children from nine months, but as the plan could cost £9billion, it is expected to be rejected.
Other schemes can be complicated to use.
Tax-free Childcare is funding available to working parents earning between £7,904 and £100,000 per year, which the Government says provides parents with up to “20 per cent” off childcare costs.
But funding is capped at £2,000 per year – which is only 14 per cent of a £14,000 full-time childcare bill.
And parents can only claim a maximum of £500 in every three months, which doesn’t roll over.
So if bills fall on the wrong dates, they miss out.
Parents on Universal Credit face huge upfront costs
Parents on Universal Credit (UC) can claim back 85 per cent of their childcare costs – but they have to pay upfront first.
It means parents may have to find more than £1,000 for a month’s nursery care in advance before getting any support.
The maximum cap for claims per month has remained unchanged for 18 years at £646 for one child and £1,108 for two.
Ms Brearley says the system is “nonsensical” because families on UC do not have disposable income and it’s keeping parents out of work.
Jobseekers on UC can apply to the Flexible Support Fund, run by Jobcentre Plus, for help with the first month’s childcare – but it rarely pays out.
UK Times’s Make Universal Credit Work campaign has been calling for childcare support to be paid upfront and remove this barrier preventing parents from getting back to work since December 2018.
Free hours don’t cover school holidays
Only 38 weeks a year are covered by the Government’s 15 and 30 free hours schemes, because they only apply during school term times.
As most workers only get six weeks’ holiday, it means there are another eight weeks every year where parents are not on annual leave but they don’t have free childcare.
Even during term-time, some nurseries only allow free hours to be used between 9am and 3pm, meaning parents who work longer hours must pay a premium.
Jane Morton-Driscoll, from Thame, Oxfordshire, gets 30 free hours per week for her three-year-old son – but her monthly childcare bill is still £590.
The calligrapher, and her husband Simon, who works in construction, both 38, have to pay the extra fees because their son attends nursery 8.30 am to 5pm, four days per week.
It means Jane’s income from her business, theoxfordcalligrapher.co.uk, only just covers the costs. “I may as well not be working,” she says.
Many nurseries say they have to charge high rates because there is an estimated £3-per-child shortfall for every free hour funded by Government.
“Childcare providers are forced to make this up by passing those costs down the chain to younger children,” explains Brearley.
Birthday lottery means some families pay more
Some parents miss out on hundreds of hours of care because the 15 and 30 free hours funding is only available from the start of the school term after a child turns two or three.
It means a child born on or before March 31 will qualify for the hours from April 1, but a child born from April onwards won’t qualify until September 1.
Jane’s son turned three last May, meaning he didn’t qualify for funding until September, while friends whose kids were born six weeks earlier got funding from April. “It was so frustrating having to wait,” she says.
She thinks children should automatically qualify from their third birthday.
What could the government do?
UK Times wants the government to support more parents by to work by:
- Slashing red tape and loopholes in current schemes to bring down childcare costs
- Expand free childcare to children from aged nine months to three years
- Pay Universal Credit childcare support up-front and increase the cap in-line with inflation
- Allow parents to access free childcare support from their third birthday, not from the next school term
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We recognise that families and early years providers across the country are facing financial pressures.
That’s why we have spent more than £20 billion over the past five years to support families with the cost of childcare.
“This Government has doubled the entitlement for working parents of 3 and 4 year olds to 30 hours and introduced 15 free hours a week for disadvantaged 2-year-olds.
“On top of this, working parents on Universal Credit may be eligible for help with up to 85% of their childcare costs through Universal Credit to support with the costs of childcare.”