#91: How Much? The Ballad of Childcare…

#91: How Much? The Ballad of Childcare…
6 minutes to read

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


  1. March 3, 2017 / 1:01 pm

    I totally feel your pain with this. I feel like I’m wishing Baby Lighty’s little life away until he hits school age! It’s also why we can’t have another child. My childminder doesn’t accept ANY of the free hours whatsoever, so I either have the choice of trying to get him into the oversubscribed pre-school where she drops off and picks up from, or change his setting entirely. Change the setting in which he’s settled and happy. Then there’s the fact that without the free hours, I can’t afford to send him to any sort of preschool until he turns three, whereas a lot of his little friends and family members are going aged 2. So will he fall behind with his schooling at only age 2? It’s something that constantly worries me. Thanks so much for this great post, at least I know I’m not alone!!

    • March 3, 2017 / 1:16 pm

      Oh you sound very similar to me in respect of there not being any solution without consequence or compromise. I have a very “oh it’ll be alright!” attitude much of the time but in terms of money and childcare, the blocks literally do not stack up and there’s no buffer. Thank you for reading and I’m sorry that the situation isn’t better for you either xx

    • March 5, 2017 / 4:17 pm

      I totally understand your comments as a parent, I own a nursery and last year I earned £3.43p an hour, the previous year it was £4.47p…I cannot feed my family on that, but as the owner, my wage comes out of the profit, which was just over £6000 for the year, I do a 45 hour week. My setting has lost over £16,000 per year, in government funding, since 2010, please do not blame the providers, we are working under immense financial pressure, yet we still greet you and your children with a smile.

      • March 5, 2017 / 8:41 pm

        I should have perhaps made more of a reference in my post to not blaming the providers at all, and you’re completely right – the staff are always upbeat and incredibly kind. £16,000 is a staggering amount for a setting to lose but that seems invisible to the government, who haven’t taken the next stage into account at all. Thank you for reading x

    • March 5, 2017 / 6:25 pm

      Mrs Lighty, being with a childminder until aged 3/4 in early years is truly a great benefit for him/her. childminder for little ones. The children are not in the same room all day, they follow the same development guidelines as all nurseries and regulated the same, by OFSTED, the local authorities and have massive support from PACEY, a support nurseries don’t get and they are more often than not highly qualified. Childminders also are able to offer the 2. 3 and 4 year old 15hrs funding. The bonus of childminders is that your children get to experience the world around them, go for walks and see it, go on the bus and train and not just sing about it!
      Childminders work on lower ratios, so more 1-1 time, they are able to socialise the children both with the children they care for (which can be varying) and take your child to groups, just like you would do if you weren’t working.
      I think childminders, given you find the right one for your family are a wonderful choice of child care. Childminders can often ease your child’s eventual transition to school (when they go) by offering wrap around care before and after school which makes for stable and happy children.
      I no longer care for early years children, I am a childminder so maybe biased but there is in my opinion no better start for a child when mummy and daddy go to work.
      It is a pity yours doesn’t offer the funded 15 hours but in no way would they be behind at the age of 2 for attending one, infact their prime areas of learning would be met better than in a busy nursery.

  2. March 3, 2017 / 1:22 pm

    its such a catch 22 isn’t it, we need the childcare, but it’s basically an exchange of salary to cover the hours. Damned if you work, damned if you don’t!

  3. March 4, 2017 / 9:22 am

    It’s a nightmare really! We had bizarrely assumed that 30 free hours meant 30 free hours. But in reality it means £36 per day instead of £55 per day in term time and normal price in non term time at our nursery. We can only claim a maximum of 6 ‘free’ hours per day so would have to put him in for 5 days a week to get the full benefit. And then pay food on top, which is currently included in the £55 but isn’t included in the £36. Not quite the 3 x 10hr days for free that we might have hoped for before looking into it!!

    • March 4, 2017 / 9:57 am

      Oh god yes. Totally not what you think at face value. But I guess your description (which I imagine is fairly typical) isn’t quite so snappy on the old Tory canvassing blurb is it?! Thanks for commenting my dear ????

    • Ahk
      March 5, 2017 / 4:44 pm

      Is this because your nursery is doing sessions ?
      I’m a childminder and am allowing 10 hours a day free so basically 3 days
      Think it all depends on your setting

  4. March 5, 2017 / 3:51 pm

    As an Early Years Professional, I’d like to say thank you for understanding the point the entire sector is trying to make. The entire scheme has been underfunded for years and doubling the allowance will cripple the PVI sector completely, causing many smaller and self sufficient settings to close.

    • March 5, 2017 / 8:28 pm

      Thank you for reading and commenting and I’m glad it resonated, although I wish this situation didn’t exist. I agree, there’ll be many closures off the back of this which will make it harder for parents to stay in work anyway, totally defeating the object.

  5. March 5, 2017 / 3:58 pm

    Thank you for this, as a preschool owner it’s good to get a parent’s perspective. Just to clarify – the Government are basically offering around £4 an hour for what costs providers, be they preschool, childminder or day nursery, around £5-£6 to provide. This means of course, that for each child, for each hour of funding, we will lose between £1 and £2, so for a 24 place setting like mine, that would be at least £700 a week, £27k a year. In the past, we could recover the deficit from the 15 hours funding by charging a little more for any hours used above 15 (that is why your childcare seems to be so expensive – it’s already subsidising the ‘free’ 15 hours) . We will no longer have the option to do that, as we can only open 30 hours a week and during term time. No business can sustain a loss such as this, and we will of course close. Some parents are not understanding this and they think that we are being mean by not offering the hours, but if they’re lucky, their children will have gone to school by the time we close, so they will not have to worry that there will no longer be any childcare choices. I know so many childminders who will have to give up. Some larger nurseries may be able to sustain this for a year or so by offering a 1 to 13 ratio to save on staff costs. Then, when there are no other settings available, they will be able to mop up children who have nowhere else to go, and charge what they like. Smaller nurseries may stay open by charging more for babies and hours outside the 30, but their income will be reduced and they may also close. There’s no such thing as FREE childcare. Someone has to pay, but unfortunately it’s not the Government, who are the ones offering it.

    • March 5, 2017 / 8:31 pm

      I’m so sorry that your preschool is at risk of closure because of this. I’m also really concerned at the prospective increase to staff ratios at other settings as these are in place for a reason – gosh, what a mess. I’m sure no parent would think that you were being mean-spirited by not offering the hours, the simple fact is you can’t afford to do so. As you say, the Government aren’t footing the bill for this benefit which is very unjust.

  6. J. Crossley
    March 5, 2017 / 4:08 pm

    I work in childcare for a term time pack away pre school which is a registered charity. I am the deputy manager with nearly 30 yrs qualified experience with a BA in early years and childhood studies and also an early years professional status. The problem with the funding is that it’s not free. For example if it costs a nursery £5 an hour for each child to attend then 30hrs would be £150. The government is paying a set hourly rate well below the £5 hourly rate and pays this to the local authorities. Then the local authorities can keep up to 10% for admin and costs. They can pay supplements to top up the hourly rate if they want to. Some authorities are only paying a base rate of £3…. something. Say a nursery gets £4 an hour per child that means a setting is £30 per 30 hr place down. Who pays this shortfall. The government will not let settings charge parents for the hourly shortfall or allow the parents charges to be have the 30hrs deducted from their bill. Plus with the raise in buisness rates, wages, pensions and statutory guidelines from Ofsted, the early years framework and the government it leaves slot or early years settings with no solution and no where to go. Please don’t forget either that the early years work force is one of the lowest paid qualified jobs there is. We do it to make a difference and because we love our jobs.

    • March 5, 2017 / 8:34 pm

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment – your reply made me incredibly sad because I know so many staff and caregivers absolutely love their jobs and provide amazing care, as mine do for my daughters. I trust them implicitly with my children yet they’re paid less per hour than I might fritter on a sandwich! It’s completely upside down and as you rightly point out, the sums just don’t add up to a long term solution.

  7. Nursery manager
    March 5, 2017 / 4:22 pm

    I think the real shame is that parents feel that nurseries are not supporting them or being fair in the way they offer the funded places but the government are paying no where near the true cost per hour; many settings are set to lose over £1.50 per funded hour, per child. It’s not just an issue of places but sustainability; lots of settings are being forced to close as the scheme is untenable with increased business rates , pensions and the living wage , they would be running at a loss. Quality provision is impossible with this scheme. It’s such a shame as many nursery workers are also parents and the government have as usual over promised and under-delivered.

    • March 5, 2017 / 8:46 pm

      Completely agree that there’s an unseen and misunderstood side to this and it’s not as simple as “why won’t they give me the free hours?”. Hopefully my post has highlighted this to a few people, that the concept of free childcare just does not exist. Thank you for reading and commenting, and you’re also right in that many nursery workers have children within that age group too so it must be doubly frustrating for them.

  8. Nicola
    March 5, 2017 / 4:39 pm

    As a childminder I can understand your frustrations, however I am also frustrated with the 30 hours free childcare offer. The rate of reimbursement to childcare providers is worked out according to a National Funding Formula set down by the government and implemented by our Local Authorities. For me my rate of reimbursement for offer the 15 or 30 hours from April will be £4.42 per hour,
    yet my fees are £5.20 per hour. Already a loss to me, yay you might say why not just charge a top up? Well it isn’t hat simple, the government say we are not allowed to charge a top up fee because this supposed to be ‘Free’ childcare. However, we can charge for additional services e.g. Food, outings, nappies, wipes etc. But the thing is this has to be an optional charge which parents are not obliged to pay, they can choose to supply their own food, nappies etc., leaving us providers still out of pocket.
    Yes I am proposing to offer the 30 hours despite this shortfall in funding, however it will mean that I am likely to limit it to one child per day who I am prepared to offer the hours to. I would prefer to offer the hours stretched over the year for the 47 weeks that I am open, this will reduce the hours to 24 per week for a full time child and just under 5 hours per day for a part-time child.
    It will also mean that when I review my hourly fees for September (which is when I review them each year) I am likely to raise my fees for all parents by a higher amount than perhaps I would have done otherwise or I will be charging for the additional services and hoping that the parents will agree to pay them.
    Providers across the country are upset by the restrictions being imposed on us are feel that it is a backhand way of price-fixing, all because the government wants this to be ‘Free’ rather than subsidised childcare.

    • March 5, 2017 / 8:49 pm

      I had no idea that parents could opt to supply their own food and nappies thereby saving them a cost but giving you as the provider even less wriggle room to “make back” the shortfall. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, and highlighting the struggle that managers are having. Clearly already running at a 78p loss per hour, per child is an awful situation for you to be in and I agree, it definitely feels backhanded.

  9. Lynette Withers
    March 5, 2017 / 5:24 pm

    This is so sad for parents, providers and the children. Since when did children not feel tension around them ?
    As a parent I can empathise with you and as a passionate Early Years provider for the sector, it’s lose/lose.
    Others have eloquently stated the case but to reinforce the government want Champagne Nurseries for Lemonade Funding

    • March 5, 2017 / 8:54 pm

      Definitely going to look into the Champagne / Lemonade thing as that seems to sum it up perfectly. I also agree that of course children pick up on tension and how is this just going to slide down with no ramifications at the settings? Thank you for reading and commenting.

  10. Julie
    March 5, 2017 / 5:26 pm

    I’m a childminder that would love to offer funding to help other parents.

    Unfortunately my 1:3 ratio would mean an almost £3,000 loss per annum (based on 3 funded children) due to underfunding (if we ignore all the other issues providers have to face with regards to funding – extra paperwork, termly rather than monthly payments, no notice period payments, £0 for childcare provided if said child leaves before headcount day, if a parent fraudulently claims at two settings it’s more often than not the childminder that has to repay and then chase the parent through the small claims court.. I’m really selling it aren’t I?!)

    Be angry at the government. Tell them your children deserve more than staff paid the statutory minimum (or indeed business owners earning FAR less than NMW).

    I really wish we were as rich as you seem to think we are (my net profit last year was £9k working 42 hours a week – if we ignore the paperwork and training I do at the weekends).

    • March 5, 2017 / 8:52 pm

      Ah I hope my post didn’t come across in a negative way towards caregivers such as yourself – I absolutely know that you’re not “rich” and that it hurts you as much as it hurts the parents. That’s dreadful that some parents would attempt to defraud the system, too, when you end up stuck with the cost of this. Thank you for reading and commenting and trust me, I am angry at the government…not you x

  11. March 5, 2017 / 5:57 pm

    Thank you for writing such a brilliantly funny piece it would be hilarious if it were not all totally true 🙁 I own a small nursery in Devon which is over 26 years old. Devon pay us £3.70 per hour per funded child for the 15 hours and we have been informed that in September when the 30 hours come out we will be getting an amazing £3.98 per hour. Wow that’s a huge increase you may say. Well yes it is but it’s the first increase we have had for two years and it is fixed until April 2020!!!! What it does not take into account is the fact that all of my staff are Level 3 qualified and ABOVE and that we work to the ratio of 1:8 and NOT the 1:13 which the department of education would like us to do. I’m afraid with the best will in the world having a degree does not suddenly give you an extra pair of hands and yes so that you can care for 13 3 & 4 year olds at the same time. Believe me coping with ratios of 1:8 can at times be a challenge when little Johnny has wet himself and needs changing and Mary is shouting from the toilet I’ve finished can you wipe my bottom please Denise. It also does not take into consideration that in April the Living Wage will be increasing by a whooping 30p an hour, our Workplace Pension Contributions are going up and don’t even talk to me about the Business Rates. Oh and for the next three years the Living Wage Rates are going up by 50p a year so that the Government can meet their election pledge to get the Living Wage up to £9 from 2020. Oh and did I mention that the £3.98 per hour we will be getting in September for the roll out of the 30 hours funding is fixed until 2020!!!!
    But it’s ok the Department of Education have said that we can charge for ‘Additional Services” to make up the shortfall but we can’t tell parents it is to make up the shortfall but have to spin a line telling them it’s to cover the cost of meals and outings and consumables but if parents don’t want to pay for the ‘additional services’ we can’t force them to, so we will make a loss. That is why 100’s of Nurseries and Childminders and Preschools across the country will be refusing to extend the 15 hours to 30 hours in September because they simply can’t afford to do so, because if they do they will go bust. But that’s fine because that’s clearly what the department of education wants because then all of the Johnnys and Marys will go to the School’s Nursery Unit where they will be working to the 1:13 ratio, but the silly parents will think it’s great because Johnny and Mary are at big school now. Oh wait what are they going to do during half-term and the big long summer holidays when the School Nursery its closed because of course the School is closed and the 30 hours only covers 38 weeks a year. So please spare a thought for all those poor Nurseries and Childminders and Preschools who are all stressed, scared and downright terrified about how they are going to make ends meet with the role out of the 30 hours in September. So when your Nursery asks you to pay a voluntary contribution to cover your child’s Breakfast, Lunch, Baking Session, Yoga, Spanish or French Classes, or a fee to cover their consumables (this could be anything from paper, paint, glue, toilet roll, hand cleaner, nappies, wet wipes, sun cream etc etc) please just smile sweetly and pay it, because if you don’t we all know what will be around the corner!!!!

    • March 5, 2017 / 9:02 pm

      Thank you Denise for such an eye-opening reply, from the perspective of a nursery owner. I can’t believe that your paltry increase is fixed until 2020 while everything else goes up and up and up. The 1:13 ratio is quite a scary prospect, for a parent – sometimes I can barely manage my two children on my own with the various demands they make at the same time and I can only imagine how incredibly organised and efficient your staff are. In no way do I think that this is your fault, from your side of the coin – I hope my post went some way to highlight exactly how wrong the government have pitched this one. Thank you again, and thank you for being human and actually caring – which is a character trait that our government seems to lack.

  12. March 5, 2017 / 9:05 pm

    I am an owner of a private nursery in Dorset and it’s so nice (but sad) to read your article which is very fair about things from a parents perspective.
    The biggest problem facing us in childcare is also the fact that the hourly rate we are being given (in our case £3.77 for a £5.20 per hour setting) will be set for the next 4 years…….during which time the national minimum wage is set to rise by almost 30%…pushing everyone else’s expected wages up too….! Couple that with the pensions which by then will be 3% of earnings and we are literally being squeezed from all sides.
    We need to lobby the government to pay the extra 15 hours to eligible parents via the hmrc childcare accounts and allow parents to use their funding where they like and at the cost they like. Parents have a choice and it allows us to set our charges at reasonable, affordable but competitive rates. We’re not out to fleece anyone just run small businesses like everyone else.

    The government as usual has announced in a fanfare that parents will get “free” childcare, but the childcare sector is having to subsidise it and try to claw it back elsewhere. It’s a dark time for us providers who take pride in what we do.

    • March 5, 2017 / 9:20 pm

      Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment – it’s so incredibly unfair that the rate you’ve been given is 1. Inadequate and 2. Fixed for so long, where other costs are rising with seeming carte blanch from our government. I’m so angry at them for using this as a selling point to get into power, seemingly scrabbling around in the background working out how they’ll mop everything up when it all falls down around our ears.

  13. Ruth Denton
    March 5, 2017 / 10:43 pm

    It’s lovely to hear your ‘parent’ perspective’ and reassuring that you acknowledge how hard it is from a provider point of view. I’ve been an Ofsted Registered Childminder for 16 years. I’ve been offering the 15 funded hours for the past 5 years. I’ve studied to achieve a BA (Hons) in early years and Early Years Professional Status. Yet the hourly rate I receive is no different to an unqualified Childminder.

    I am also like other settings in a dilemma as to what I can offer. I currently care for 6 part-time early years children. When they all reach 3, I cannot physically offer the 30 hours for all the children, unless I work a 60 hour week. Quite a few of the parents of children in my care are term-time only, so no option to stretch either. I also will be taking a £90 per week pay cut if 3 children are using their 30 hours. I have considered changing a ‘consumables and outings’ daily fee. But then it’s not free care, and unfair for the parents.

    If I don’t offer the funding I understand parents may go elsewhere, where they can save themselves some money. So if I don’t offer it I could put myself out of work.

    When my own four children were young there were no ‘free’ sessions, no vouchers or tax free childcare, and no tax credits. So parents now are better off than we were then. I still understand though what a large portion of wages is taken up in childcare costs.

    I often question though the fact that 0-5 is such a crucial time, where brain connections are being formed and close relationships, interaction and experiences are so important. So us early years practitioners are caring for a child at such a vitally important time. Yet the government will not acknowledge this. Their funding for free care is directed mostly to schools and hardly at all to early years settings.

    It’s about time they shared the funding available evenly, not once a child has started school.

    In some other countries parents are paid to stay at home and children can attend fully funded early years settings until they are older and more ready for formal learning.

    Moving abroad is becoming quite tempting…….

    • March 6, 2017 / 11:37 am

      Thank you so much for reading and for your comment, which echoes a lot of the other comments that I’ve had but also makes the very valid point about 0-5 being a key time for children. Consistency is a massive factor here and in all honesty, if my nursery setting told me they wouldn’t be able to offer ANY hours I would still be incredibly reluctant to move my children out, as we have all come to know and love the staff there. I also agree that we have it much better now than previous generations in terms of access to help, to enable us to work, but that we have many other costs and financial obligations that didn’t exist 20 years ago. It’s very, very difficult and it’s clear to me now that the staff in this profession are losing out just as much as the parents. Thanks again for reading x

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