A lack of childcare for school-age children is forcing parents to put their careers on hold or fork out for private providers. Moneywise investigates
The government initiative to roll out 30 hours of free childcare for three- and four-year-olds has received great attention since its launch in September 2018. The scheme, which aims to support parents back to work, is said to be saving parents thousands of pounds a year.
But what happens when a previously funded child goes to school? A vastly overlooked provision is before- and after-school childcare, which impacts on parents for a much longer period.
“It is the Cinderella area of policy,” says Catherine Wrench, director of the Out of School Alliance, which offers help and support to out-of-school clubs.
According to the latest survey by charity Coram Family and Childcare, only a third of local authorities in England have enough childcare for five- to 11-year-olds after school, and this drops to 15% for 12- to 14-year-olds.
This often means that one parent has to work part-time to fit around the school day or parents end up paying higher rates for childcare because there is more demand than supply.
In some instances, parents’ childcare bills increase by more than 200% when their child goes to school because they lose the 30 hours of free childcare but still need around 20 hours of wraparound care a week if they work full-time.
Across Britain, the average price of an after-school club is nearly £2,200 a year and almost £2,500 for a childminder during term time.
Lack of affordable childcare has a significant financial impact on parents and yet there is no government policy to tackle the issue.
Is it a common problem?
Only a quarter of parents say they do not struggle with after-school care, according to a survey by support network Workingmums.co.uk. And of those mothers currently not working, 56% say childcare costs are making it difficult for them to return to work.
“A lot of parents think it will be easier when their children go to school because it is free. But there is not enough flexible childcare around and parents have to work it out on their own. It feels like a punishment for having children,” says Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.
It costs parents £57.36 a week for a place in an after-school club or £65.70 for a childminder for 15 hours a week, according to the latest Coram report – compared with £60.60 for the average weekly household spend on food and non-alcoholic drinks.
“Childcare is every bit as vital as schools, healthcare or transport. It supports parents to work, provides our economy with a reliable workforce and boosts children’s outcomes. But too many parents remain locked out of work by high childcare costs and low availability,” says Megan Jarvie, head of Coram.
Significant regional differences, mean parents also face a postcode lottery in terms of price and availability.
Although the average weekly cost of an after-school club for five- to 11-year olds in Britain is £57.36 or £65.70 for a childminder, families in the West Midlands are having to stump up £69.34 for a place at after-school club. In Yorkshire and Humberside, the average cost is much lower at £55.10 for an after-school club and £58.55 for a childminder.
In inner London, parents pay a competitive £57.75 a week for an after-school club but if they need to use a childminder, rates skyrocket to £110.49 a week.
These costs are also just for care after school. Many parents working nine to five will also need a breakfast club at school or a childminder to do the school run, ramping up costs even further.
“When I worked in London, there was much better provision and it was subsidised,” adds mother-of-four Ms Garner. “Now we live in a village and the childminders are oversubscribed. The local nursery does pick-ups, but it is £16 per child.”
In Wales, there is also a greater shortage of after-school care for 12- to 14-year-olds, with just 5% of local authorities stating that they have enough provision. This also fluctuates in England, with 55% of councils in the North East saying they have enough childcare for five- to 11-year-olds compared to just 17% in the South East.
“My career is on hold while my son is in school”
When her son was at nursery, writer Lucy Dixon worked full-time for an online publisher in Norwich.
But once George started school, she felt she had to go freelance so she could work flexible hours from home and do the school run.
“The village school has nothing, and I haven’t been able to find a childminder or nursery who can pick up from there. This means I can only work between 9am and 2.45pm. I did consider moving him to a different school but what if I did and then it withdrew the school club?”
Lucy says she would be happy to pay for childcare but it just isn’t an option where she lives.
“It was a lot easier to hold down a job when George was in nursery than it is now, even though it cost a bomb. The lack of childcare impacts on where you can work and on which company you can work for. There are not many jobs out there that are between the hours of 9.30am and 2.30pm, and commutable from school.”
She says her career is now stuck in limbo until her son can get to and from school and is old enough to be left at home on his own.
“My income has definitely suffered. But it is more that I feel like I can never progress, and this is it for me now. My career is on pause because of childcare. I also feel as if I’m always working as I work evenings and weekends, due to the short working day.”
Why is there a shortfall?
Government austerity measures are being blamed for the wraparound childcare crisis due to the lack of funds to support new providers.
In the past, out-of-school clubs, usually run on school premises, could apply for grants to help cover the staff and rental costs for the first year.
“When I started my own after-school club in 2008, the local authorities provided really good support to out-of-school clubs, but now most have got rid of their play work departments,” says Ms Wrench.
There is also great uncertainty if an external provider sets up an after-school club at a school because they are renting a space, which could be revoked at any time.
“Lots of schools have shortfalls in funding and are taking [childcare] provision in-house but they soon realise it is not a cash cow. They do it for the short term but then stop and close,” adds Ms Wrench.
Added to this is the massive shortfall in childminders, with the loss of 1,000 in the last quarter of 2018 alone. This coincides with the scrapping of the Childcare Business Grant Scheme and free training previously available to new childminders in March 2019.
“Childminder numbers have gone down by 30% over the past six years. They are now the same level as in the late 1970s. It’s a really worrying situation, yet wraparound childcare is not given enough attention by government and policy makers.
“It is because maternal employee rates in the UK are behind Europe and a lot of countries,” says Susanna Kalitowski, policy and research manager at the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, a charity supporting anyone working in childcare.
Along with the reduction in out-of-school clubs and childminders, nurseries providing wraparound care are also closing or putting up their prices to stay afloat.
The Early Years Alliance says that the new scheme for 30 free hours of childcare is inadequately funded, causing nurseries to increase fees or to bring in additional charges. The rate care providers receive for funded hours is frozen for five years until 2020, despite rises in the National Living Wage, which means childcare providers are having to pay out more in wages, as well as the extra cost of workplace pension schemes.
Is anything being done to tackle the issue?
Parents have the right to request that their school establish wraparound care, but this has had limited impact since the guidance was established in 2017.
Working parents can receive financial support via the tax-free childcare system, which is replacing the childcare voucher scheme. Eligible families can claim up to £2,000 a year towards childcare costs through the scheme.
The Department for Education (DoE) is also investing £26 million into a breakfast club programme, using funds from Soft Drinks Industry Levy revenues.
“This money will kick-start or improve breakfast clubs in over 1,700 schools and will be targeted at the most disadvantaged areas of the country to help make sure every child gets the best start in life. This builds on our previous £1.1 million investment in a breakfast club programme, which ended in March 2016,” says a DoE spokesperson.
But although this scheme tackles poverty and nourishment, it fails to deal with the wider childcare shortfall issue, says Ms Kalitowski.
“The government has put a lot of money into childcare and it hasn’t solved any problems. It makes it affordable for a year or two, and that’s it.
“Schools don’t have an obligation to do anything, and wraparound childcare makes such a difference over whether people can work or not. If you have three children, it can affect you for 20 years. Parents needs to lobby schools and government on this issue.”
“I had to take time off work to care for my son after school”
Despite starting her hunt for childcare seven months before her daughter Tvisha started school, Charu Verma found that all of the local providers were booked up.
She contacted childminders and out-of-school clubs, including the one attached to her daughter’s new school in Market Harborough, Leicestershire, but was told she would have to go on a waiting list for three to six months.
At the time she was on maternity leave with her younger son Reyaansh and was looking to return to work as an IT test manager. She managed to get cover for three days but was still short of after-school childcare for two days.
“My husband and I work full-time; he is a doctor and I’m in a management position, so there was no other option than full-time work. I had to negotiate with my employer and asked to work at home for two days a week. My employer agreed in principle as they wanted me back.”
For the next four months the couple juggled working from home, taking 15 days’ annual leave and shuffling work rotas.
“Every weekend, the topic of discussion was who is filling in this week. It was very challenging.”
Eventually, they were able to secure wraparound care for the week when they got to the top of the out-of-school club waiting list.
“In other areas, people are waiting up to a year. What do you do? You can’t give up your life for a year. These are parents who are willing to pay and want to continue with their career and now one parent has to step back.”
LILY CANTER is a freelance journalist who writes on money for publications such as The Guardian,, Sun, Telegraph, and Times