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As the childcare crisis fuels inequality for women and children, mums are demanding action

The childcare system is at breaking point both in Bristol and nationally, with mothers being forced out of the workforce as costs rise and provision shrinks.

Anna Chhina, a Lawrence Weston mum, has struggled to find work that will fit around the childcare available to her

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A childcare crisis is forcing mums out of the workplace, leading to nursery closures and creating greater inequality among women and children, say local campaigners, parents and nursery staff.

Hundreds of mums will take to the streets in Bristol for a ‘March of the Mummies’ this Saturday, 29 October, calling on the government, regional and local councils to invest properly in childcare as infrastructure – before the whole system collapses.

The rising cost of living, including nursery fees, is putting childcare out of reach for many families – especially those with more than one child – and the number of people who aren’t working because of caring commitments is the highest since the start of the pandemic. It comes at a time when many employers are struggling to recruit, especially within the childcare sector leading to shortage of provision.

According to the latest annual Family and Childcare Survey by the Coram children’s charity, 95% of providers report difficulties in recruiting staff. Ofsted data shows the number of registered providers fell by around 5% between 1 April 2020 and 31 July 2021. 

‘Mothers like me want to go to work’

“The costs are going up and the provision is going down,” says Camilla Rigby, who founded the Women’s Work Lab community interest company to help unemployed mums back into work. Rigby says 60% of the programme’s graduates have gone on to secure decent jobs, a figure that would likely be 100% if childcare wasn’t an ongoing issue.

“It’s utterly demoralising for us,” she explains. “We have women who have been through the programme and been offered decent jobs, but they could not afford to take them. Mums are downgrading their aspirations to fit around childcare. They go to the job centre and they’re being told, you need to take on more hours or we will sanction you. It’s set up for mothers to fail.

“It’s even harder for mums who are coming out of abusive relationships, lone parents, parents of a child with special educational needs or disabilities – or managing their own disability, or where English is a second language,” Rigby continues. “How are mothers supposed to overcome all of those things without support?”

Anna Chhina, who lives in Lawrence Weston with her partner and two young children, enrolled on the Women’s Work Lab programme to help her get back into work after six years of full-time parenting. Her partner is a long-distance lorry driver and her family live in Poland, so childcare is a real issue for her.

“Mothers like me want to go to work but there’s not that much help – it’s really difficult with children,” she says. “My youngest was in nursery for three hours a day with 15 free hours, but you can’t find any jobs you can do in that time.

“Now I have children in school, I need to think about how I manage inset days and school holidays. There are not that many jobs you can do in school hours. My husband works but doesn’t earn enough for childcare, everything costs too much, even now they’re at school.”

‘The system is broken’

It costs more than £1,000 a month per child for a full-time place in a nursery. While the government offers tax relief and ‘15 or 30 free hours’ during term-time for working parents of three- and four-year-olds, this can still result in fees of around £500 a month. 

The current government subsidy for 30 ‘free’ hours for three- and four-year-olds in Bristol is £4.88, but most nurseries in the city are running at £6-7 an hour. Nurseries are plugging the funding gap with supplementary costs such as admin fees and charging extra for food and drink charged to parents, and increasing the hourly cost for a place in their baby rooms to offset the shortfall.

Image of Liz Davies, who left nursery work in search of better pay (image: David Griffiths)
Bristol mum Liz Davies, who left nursery work in search of better pay (image: David Griffiths)

Until recently, mum-of-one Liz Davies worked full-time at Rocking Horse Day Nursery in Kingswood because her son could attend for free. With her son now in school, she has reluctantly left the profession for better paid work to help her family cope with the rising cost of living.

“The system is broken,” she says. “The ‘free’ hours are so badly underfunded, it puts a lot of pressure on nurseries. As much as my employer tried to give me a fair wage, the cost of living crisis meant that I couldn’t afford to work there and live. On leaving the nursery, I immediately found a job with a pay rise of £9,000 a year.

“The money that the nursery owners can offer just can’t compete. If we don’t address it, we’ll have no quality staff and I’m quite scared for the future of childcare because of the lack of support and funding from the government. There are nurseries closing down left, right and centre, we’re watching them all fold. While a nursery is about childcare, it’s also a business and would you run a business at a loss?”

Affordable nurseries ‘as essential as housing’

Nicola Beech, the Labour councillor for St George Central, is also a governor at Speedwell Nursery – one of 12 maintained, or council-run, nurseries in the city. As the Cable has reported in the past, such nurseries play a crucial role in reducing inequalities among young children – but are facing unsustainable financial pressures.

“Nurseries are doing what they can, reducing back end function and sharing staff so they can keep the focus on frontline spend, but there’s no surety from the government,” Beech says.

“Affordable nursery provision succeeds on every level,” she adds. “The idea that your child can go to a quality school from the age of two or three is one of the best public health interventions you can give to a family – it’s up there with housing.” 

Bristol Women’s Commission’s ‘Delivering an Inclusive Economy Post Covid-19’ report identified childcare as a key challenge. It called on leaders to recognise the care economy as a vital part of economic renewal and direct investment accordingly, with a particular urgent need in childcare. 

‘We need to see care as key infrastructure’

Speaking to Bristol Women’s Commission ahead of last year’s election, the West of England Mayor Dan Norris said: “All evidence shows that investment in childcare boosts economic earnings, growth and ultimately gender equality of course, and the lack of affordable childcare and the responsibility of childcare and elder care falls disproportionately on women so it’s a major barrier to our economy being fully inclusive.” 

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Bristol South MP and Shadow Social Care Minister Karin Smyth added: “We need to see care as key infrastructure helping people get back to work, as well as supporting families. The system is in crisis and the priority is to stabilise that, support those providing the service.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said the government was investing extra funding to raise the hourly rate, adding: “We are exploring a wide range of options to improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare for working parents.”

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