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‘It is crippling our family’: the devastating reality of Britain’s childcare crisis

childcare crisis
childcare crisis

On a sunny Tuesday morning in June, Beth O’Sullivan watches her two-year-old son play in the local park in Bideford, a town on the Torridge estuary.

O’Sullivan, 36, lives in nearby Dolton, a picturesque village in rural North Devon and was working full-time in communications and marketing until she gave birth.

She had hoped to go back part-time after her maternity leave but was forced to give up her job because she couldn’t find childcare.

“Childminders were few and far between and they all had waiting lists,” she says. “I spent months looking and eventually I gave up. It forced my hand not to go back to work. The whole system is a real mess.”

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O’Sullivan, who now manages to do some of her own freelance work, is exactly the kind of person that both Labour and the Tories want to win over in the election. Both parties have made tackling Britain’s childcare crisis a priority.

The district of Torridge, on the Hartland Devon Heritage Coast, is on the frontline of the crisis. It is the worst of what charity Pregnant Then Screwed calls Britain’s “childcare deserts”.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Torridge has just 12 childcare places for every 100 local children under seven. This is the worst ratio of any local authority in England.

While the lack of childcare is most stark in Torridge, it is a national problem and one which is holding back Britain.

A lack of support is forcing parents – often mothers – to work less than they would like, damaging growth. ONS data shows Torridge has the fourth-lowest productivity rate out of 374 local authorities across the country.

In Torridge, 54pc of women work part-time, the fourth-highest share of the 282 local authorities in England and Wales for which data is available.

In turn, women’s weekly wages are lower than elsewhere in the country. The average woman in Torridge earns £387 per week before tax, nearly £100 less than the average woman in England and Wales.

Isabel Saxby, who is running as Labour candidate for Torridge and Tavistock, says: “Without access to childcare, parents, mainly mothers, find it more difficult to find work, which means a lot of families continue to be stuck in poverty.”

Torridge exemplifies a national problem that has become a major election issue.

In his Budget last year, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced what he called “the biggest expansion of childcare in a generation” with a pledge to offer 30 hours a week of free childcare for all children under five with working parents.

The offer is being rolled out gradually and will be fully up and running by September 2025. It is a promise that the Tory manifesto now estimates will be worth £6,900 per year per working family.

The policy will double government spending on pre-school support from £4bn to more than £8bn a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

Labour has made access to childcare a key part of its manifesto, describing it as “a crucial opportunity to transform life chances”.

Sir Keir Starmer has committed to continuing the roll-out if his party wins and says Labour will go further. He has promised to create 100,000 childcare places across 3,000 new nurseries by turning spare classrooms in primary schools into “school-based nurseries”.

Sir Keir Starmer has promised to create 100,000 childcare places and open 3,000 new nursery classes if Labour wins
Sir Keir Starmer has promised to create 100,000 childcare places across 3,000 new nurseries Labour wins - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

While the Tories plan to let the market deliver the new nursery places, Labour will pay for the cost of creating them. Crucially, this means Labour gets to choose where in the country they will be located, says Christine Farquharson, associate director at the IFS.

However, there are doubts over whether the sector will be able to scale up to meet the new plans. Just 28pc of local authorities are confident they will be able to offer 15 hours of childcare per week for children over nine months old by this September, when the requirement kicks in.

Even with soaring prices, the childcare business model is broken.

Laura Truepenny and her husband started a childminding and tutoring business, Truependous Tutoring, from their home in Bideford in 2020. But they stopped the childminding side of the business in August last year, in part because the money did not add up.

Taking children on government-funded places meant they received around £4.50 per hour per child.

“You had to have three kids just to be on minimum wage. People get paid more to walk a dog than we would get to look after people’s kids,” says Truepenny.

Now, she is just focused on tutoring, where she charges £10 an hour for group lessons. “I have up to eight in a group, so then that is £80 an hour, compared to the £15 an hour we were getting with child minding.”

While raising prices would likely encourage more providers into the market, it would only worsen the problem for many parents.

One of the reasons childcare provision is so low in Devon is because many people cannot afford to pay for it.

Jade*, 36, lives in Barnstaple, the North Devon district next door to Torridge. She works full-time and earns just over £30,000 per year. Her partner also works full-time doing shift work for around £15 per hour.

They have managed to get on the housing ladder, but they have just had to apply for Universal Credit to cover nursery fees.

“It now works out as just under £1,400 per month, which is double our mortgage,” she says. “On top of all of the other costs that have gone up, it is just crippling us as a family.”

The couple now receive around £500 per month in Universal Credit to help cover the costs but this comes with its own problems.

“Now, if my partner were to work extra hours, we would lose money in UC. It would be pointless,” says Jade.

The costs are about to get bigger as Jade is pregnant. “We are panicking thinking how the hell are we going to be able to pay for two children in daycare.”

Her situation lays bare the limitations of both parties’ childcare plans. In theory, from September 2024, she will be able to get 15 hours free childcare per week for her toddler. From September 2025, she will be able to get 30 hours per week for both of her young children.

But the free hours are only for 38 weeks per year, during school term time. Parents can spread the entitlement over 52 weeks, but only if they reduce the hours per week accordingly. It means 15 hours will actually only be 11 hours over a 52-week year.

“When you are a full-time employee, that doesn’t work,” says Jade. “Try saying that to an employer: ‘Actually, I can only come back to work 11 hours a week’.”

Why is childcare so expensive? Experts blame problems with staff retention, minimum wage rises, and high rent and energy bills.

Childcare fees rose three times faster than nominal wages between 2008 and 2018, according to analysis by the Trades Union Congress. A part-time nursery place for a child under two now costs £158 per week, according to a March report by the Coram Group charity, up 7.4pc since 2023.

In Devon, these national problems are coupled with lack of suitable buildings, issues with staff recruitment and a sparse population that makes providing group services difficult, says a spokesman for Devon County Council.

He said: “Put simply, demand for childcare outstrips supply, and there are too few new child carers coming into the market.”

The spokesman added that the council was doing “all we can as a local authority to support childcare providers, and to help them recruit new child carers in order to meet the growing demand”.

Jade chose the cheapest nursery she could find: it costs £63 per day. Others she looked at cost £75 – or an extra £300 per month.

“Who can afford that? Who has that disposable income?,” she laments. “The thing is that if you don’t have two huge wages coming in – if you have got one OK wage and one OK wage – there is no way that you can cope.”

*Name has been changed