How astronomical childcare costs have disproportionately impacted women

Becky Lane, 36, Surrey - Heathcliff O'Malley
Becky Lane, 36, Surrey - Heathcliff O'Malley

Becky Lane has always been passionate about her career. She set up her own events management company after her first child was born six years ago. When she had a second child, she found it too demanding to keep running her business and decided to look for a full-time job instead.

But Lane, 36, from Surrey, was shocked to find that her childcare costs would make it impossible for her to work without losing money.

She has been forced to turn down jobs because she would need at least £50,000 to cover her childcare and commuting expenses. After months of searching she has given up. “I want to work,” she says. “I feel so deflated. I have so much experience.”

Lane is among growing numbers of women who cannot afford to work because of soaring childcare costs.

Around 1.5 million women are not in work because they are looking after their family or home, compared with 240,000 men, according to the Office for National Statistics.

For many women, this was not by choice: 44pc of mothers who are not in work said they would rather be employed but are unable to find affordable, convenient and reliable childcare, according to an ONS survey published last year. A quarter (23pc) of mothers who work part-time said they would increase their hours if they could get childcare.

More than two-thirds (68pc) of parents have decided not to apply for a job or have had to turn down extra work because they cannot find affordable or flexible childcare, according to a survey by childcare app Bubble.

The cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two has risen from an average of £236 a week in 2018 to £274 in 2022 – a jump of 16pc. Over the course of a year, this amounts to an average of £14,248. In some areas, this can be even more expensive. For mothers with two children, the costs of childcare can easily outpace their earnings.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, describes the childcare system as “broken”. “The lack of available and affordable childcare, compounded by the growing number of provider closures, is pushing too many women out of the workplace,” she says.

Childcare could become a key battleground during the next election as Labour pledges to increase the number of state-run nurseries and provide more support for families. Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, recently scrapped reforms tabled by his predecessor Liz Truss, which aimed to give families an extra 20 hours a week of free childcare.

Lauren Fabianski, of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, says a lack of affordable childcare is “failing mothers” and “pushing more and more families needlessly into poverty”.

Lane says nursery costs for her two-year-old son would have been £85 a day if she had taken a full-time job. Cheaper nurseries said they had no places and she could spend years on their waiting lists.

For her six-year-old daughter, she would have been paying £20 for an after-school club, £10 for care before school, and around £40 a day to cover school holidays. Commuting would have cost thousands more.

‘I never planned on being a stay-at-home mum’

Esmee Buckle and her daughter - Daniel Jones
Esmee Buckle and her daughter - Daniel Jones

For Esmee Buckle, the search for work after becoming a mother has been equally dispiriting.

She was made redundant during her maternity leave five years ago and stayed out of the workforce to have a second child.

Buckle, 28, wants to get back into work but cannot find a job that pays enough to cover the childcare costs for her four-year-old son, and daughter, one. “I never ever planned to be a stay-at-home mum,” she says.

Her previous role as an art consultant paid £1,375 a month, but she was told the nursery costs for her daughter would be £1,035 a month. On top of this, she would face extra costs for her son to receive full-time care.

Because he is four years old, he would receive 30 hours of free childcare, but this would not be enough to cover her full-time working hours.

Buckle, from Saffron Walden in Essex, says she has to send her son to nursery outside her local area because it’s cheaper, but this means that if she takes a job she has to factor in the extra expenses of travelling. She would also lose £350 in Universal Credit that she and her partner now receive.

Buckle says she now questions the value of her first-class degree in illustration, which cost her £42,000 in student loans but has not helped her get a job that pays enough to cover her childcare fees. “It’s really disheartening,” she says. “I worked really hard for my degree.”

She fears that having a huge gap on her CV will make it even harder for her to get a job once both her children are in school.

‘I’m financially stuck’

Kara Kendall and her son - Paul Grover
Kara Kendall and her son - Paul Grover

For women that do go back to work after maternity leave, the plunging take-home pay after paying for childcare is challenging.

Kara Kendall, 34, a private school teacher from Lingfield in Surrey, has two children aged one and four. She is left with £250 a month – but during some months this drops to zero. She earns £1,600 a month working four days a week and pays around £1,000 a month for childcare. The added costs of her car and petrol eat up another £350.

“If there is a five-week month or our holidays don’t align, I don’t make money,” she says. “If I am asked to do a parents’ meeting and have to get childcare, I don’t make money. I’m sick of being financially stuck.”

She loves her job, but seeing her take-home pay drop has made her question whether it is worth it. On the other hand, she wants her children to see her as a professional role model, and keeping her foot in the door is fundamental to maintaining her career as a teacher in the long run. “It’s an unspoken dilemma of motherhood,” she says.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We are currently looking into options to improve the cost, flexibility, and availability of childcare – ensuring that any plans we bring forward focus on improving outcomes for children.

“To date, this government has doubled the offer for 3 and 4 year olds; introduced 15 hours free childcare a week for disadvantaged two year olds; and people on universal credit can claim back up to 85pc of their childcare costs.”