I’ve never really understood the expression “get on my soapbox”, but I’m going to clamber up onto mine right now and have a little vent about the cost of childcare in 2017.

A friend of mine posted a meme to her social media recently about nursery fees, and the ball-busting cost thereof. Why, here it is:

Let me lay it out on the line. I have two children, who go to nursery two days per week, for a 10 hour session each day. Mouse is over three, so I get the pleasure of 15 funded hours per week towards her care. This doesn’t include meals, which are priced at just over £4 a day extra. Also, the funded hours are term-time only, unless your childcare provider is able to spread them across the calendar year and offer you 11 free hours per week.  Mine is, and I distinctly remember ticking that checkbox, but I must have used a weak biro as this doesn’t seem to have translated onto my invoices. Which was a particularly sorry discovery over the Christmas school holidays, I can tell you.

So that’s Mouse. Moo is where the real money is at, costing me 51 squids a day. Now, when you break it down to an hourly rate, it’s peanuts. Considering that includes 1:3 ratio care, as much food as she can shovel in, and as many nappies as she can shit through, it’s a very conservative cost. You’d pay more than double that per hour for Nancy’s 17 year old daughter from number 84 to come and sit on your sofa, eat some pringles, read all of Facebook, and periodically switch the music function on the baby monitor back on.

As a nursery parent on a monthly billing cycle, you come to dread the five week months. Because of the aforementioned “miscommunication” with the spreading of government-funded hours, this August is set to be an absolute killer if I end up paying full whack for both children. Like, almost £1,000 of killer. £1,000 to have two children in childcare, two days per week. I barely take that home a month.

But it’s fine, you see, because our lovely government have got a scheme up their sleeve. Hell to the yeah, 30 free hours for eligible three and four year olds from September 2017. Only…there’s a pretty major problem here. Supply and demand.

Just a third of local authorities in England actually think that their childcare settings can facilitate this scheme, according to a poll by the Family and Childcare Trust. Firstly, because they literally don’t anticipate having that level of free space to offer to any child, paying or not. Consider it this way – if a four year old can currently get 15 free hours, then doubling this doesn’t automatically double the number of nurseries, the number of staff, to cater for the expected uptake. Secondly, 30 hours of free childcare is a LOT to a nursery. Going by Moo’s daily rate, that’s about £150 of care that someone needs to cover the cost of. For one child. For one week. 

The government have thrown in a little eligibility clause, too. Each parent (or the sole parent, in single parent families), will need to earn the equivalent of 16 hours per week on the national minimum wage. Tick for me. But each parent must earn less than £100,000 per year. Er, tick for me. I’ll get that Audi TT one day I’m sure…anyway, I digress. I’m eligible! Woo. Roll on Moo’s third birthday. So Mouse will be at school, I can increase to working five days per week, bosh Moo into nursery for three of those, and pay the same for her as I’m paying now. Less, in fact, as my fees drop slightly once she hits 36 months regardless (I assume because of toilet training and a reduction in nappies). FINALLY I can claw back to financial stability, having endured five years in a maternity leave / part time work slipstream.

No, actually. My nursery setting have already sent up a warning flare to us parents, to advise that they can’t envision their group of settings across the city being able to fulfill this expectation placed on them by our government. They won’t be able to cover their operating costs and maintain the same standard of care. Moreover, they’re legally prohibited from charging a top-up fee directly to parents, in order to reduce the impact of the shortfall. Therefore, they say, like many other childcare providers in the country, they’ll have to limit the number of fully funded places that they can offer, and instigate an application and assessment process. Even then, they anticipate that they’ll be over-subscribed.

Hang on, guys. I’m eligible. I’ve been paying you since Mouse was 10 months old. I want to increase to working full time hours, eventually. I’m willing to pay you the maximum that you’ll get from any parent under this scheme. I don’t want to have Moo with you for 30 hours then cut and run for the rest of the week, bobbing you £12 to cover her meals and sod the rest. I want to earn more so I can pay more tax and more national insurance, so I can help my company to increase their profits, which in turn contribute towards the country’s engineering infrastructure. I’m a gold star student, where the government is concerned. The government WANT me to have this benefit.

But the government touting the scheme as a lifeline to working parents have dropped a massive bollock on this one. It’s hugely underfunded, atop a myriad of other underfunded ambitions when it comes to early-years places and primary education. The very real worry now is that my childcare provider will opt out of the scheme entirely, and I’ll be left scrabbling around with hundreds of other parents, trying to find a setting that will give me ANY funded hours.

If I can’t? My worst-case nursery bill might become an every-month nursery bill. My husband and I will limp towards September 2020, utterly desperate to get Moo into school just so we can have a break from the financial torrent.

So, free childcare, you say? Free at what cost?

P.S. According to Wiki, a soapbox is a raised platform on which one stands to make an impromptu speech, often about a political subject. The term originates from the days when speakers would elevate themselves by standing on a wooden crate originally used for shipment of soap or other dry goods from a manufacturer to a retail store. So there we are.

-SJW March 2017