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When it doesn’t pay to work: how universal free childcare would help us all

Women are being priced out of work. Making childcare truly affordable wouldn’t only benefit individual families, but society as a whole.

Image of Laura Williams and her child (image: Laura Williams)

Author Laura Williams had to return to work soon after her first child was born, but childcare costs ate up her earnings


It’s something that you don’t really think about until you have children, and why would you? But childcare indirectly affects us all.

When I first became a mum nine years ago, I had a range of part-time jobs and freelanced to top up my pay. When I discovered I was pregnant, I was on a temporary contract that swiftly ended as I neared my due date, leaving me with no maternity pay. A true case of Pregnant Then Screwed.

I returned to freelance work when my baby was just a few weeks old because I had no money. After months of job searching, I secured a part-time job which only paid me around £60 a day.

At the time, nursery cost £55 a day, and my travel to work was £5 a day – meaning I was effectively not earning any money by working. 

Some said, ‘Why bother? just stay at home and enjoy the time with your baby’. 

‘Brilliant women disappear from workplaces’

As tempting as that was, I’d seen brilliant and talented women disappear from my workplaces after having kids. I’d seen the impact of having four or five years out of your profession on career progression, and the upper echelons of newsrooms dominated by men of all ages, while just a handful of younger and older women took on the lower paid roles. 

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I was thinking long-term. And what’s more, I wanted to work. Parenting is hard. Work is a break from that.

While I secured a nursery place for my fixed days of work, my freelance work was much less predictable – some months it would amount to 10 days, others zero days. 

Childcare provision is limited both in terms of the range of providers and of the rotas they operate. You book in advance – sometimes so far in advance it’s before your baby is even born – for fixed days and pay for those days whether you use them or not. There is no flexibility – and this in a city where so many people are now working flexibly. 

Levelling the playing field

I brought together a group of freelance mums, all facing similar challenges around childcare, to try and solve the crisis. The ones who had family nearby were relying on grandparents, and most of us were working on evenings and weekends and turning down work. 

We trialled a co-working space with creche at Windmill Hill City Farm that you could book onto as and when you needed it. It was great, but sadly wasn’t financially sustainable. 

Around the same time, I attended an insightful conference at UWE Bristol that explored potential solutions – including introducing universal free childcare for all pre-school aged children. While on the surface that seems a huge outlay, when you take into account the benefit of this model it not only makes economic sense but is also essential to tackling social inequality. 

It levels the playing field for children, with everyone getting access to quality childcare, food and learning opportunities. It acts as a safety net for children at risk from harm, with trained nursery workers able to pick up on signs of neglect, abuse or undiagnosed health and development issues. 

It creates thousands of green job opportunities. It enables women to work, filling vacancies, contributing to the economy and closing the gender pay gap. It is good for parents’ mental health too – you need only look at the stress that home-schooling added to families during the pandemic lockdowns.

Long-term benefits

Bristol One City Office crunched the numbers in its 2020 affordable childcare report to show that delivering universal free childcare for all children under four-and-a-half and paying nursery staff a living wage would cost £325 million a year. 

It would though create more than 14,000 jobs, leading to immediate tax and benefit gains of £252 million – taking into account current government spending on 15 and 30 ‘free’ hours of childcare for three- and four-year-olds. While there’s a shortfall compared with the initial outlay, it’s one likely to be recouped when you take into account the long-term benefits of happy, healthy families supported to learn and work.

Critics say people shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford it, but the UK has some of the most expensive childcare in the world. Nurseries in Bristol charge up to £2,000 a month for a full-time place, with many families spending more than half of their household income on childcare.

Add in rising rents and mortgages, utilities and food bills, and it’s clear this situation is not sustainable.

My nursery bill for two children in nursery from eight months to four years exceeds £50,000, even with the so-called ‘free’ hours, and that’s before we get to the wraparound school care, which enables me to work and amounts to hundreds of pounds a month. 

We really need women to work – we take on the majority of care jobs – but we’re being priced out of the workforce. And let’s not forget, our kids will be the ones working the future jobs we all need for society to function – from health and social care to engineering and farming, and paying taxes to cover rising pension bills.

Ultimately, affordable childcare doesn’t just benefit individual families, it benefits society as a whole.

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  • An excellent piece of writing which describes the plight of families in all parts of the UK. Grandparents and other family members can help out if they live locally but this is not so easy if they live away from their family. The cost of childcare needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Well done Laura Williams for highlighting this widespread problem.


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