Struggle to access childcare hits poorer families harder as government policies leave parents stressed and anxious

Difficulty accessing early years provision has left more than a quarter (27%) of parents with under-fives struggling to balance work and childcare, a new survey from leading early years organisation, the Early Years Alliance has found – with parents in disadvantaged areas most likely to feel unsupported by government policies.

The poll of more than 3,000 parents, carried out in July and August 2021 revealed that:

  • Parents in deprived areas were 22% more likely to say they were struggling, with four out of five (80%) saying government is not doing enough to help them access affordable, accessible childcare.
  • One in six (17%) respondents said problems accessing childcare had resulted in poor mental health, with stress and anxiety the most frequent complaints.
  • Nine in 10 (92%) respondents were mothers, suggesting childcare issues continue to adversely affect the female workforce.
  • One in six (16%) reported having to reduce their working hours with the average number of hours falling 41% – from 36.7 to just 21.7 hours per week.
  • Single parents were twice as likely to be forced to change jobs, or to leave work entirely as a result (11% versus 6% for dual-parent households).

“I had to cease being self-employed as I could not find or afford childcare. I have secured a new job but this is a massive pay cut and a big demotion and will only earn enough to cover my youngest son’s childcare costs. It leaves me with not enough for after school club for my eldest child.

The Early Years Alliance has repeatedly called on government to carry out a full review of early years funding, ahead of the spending review this autumn. According to government data, the number of settings on the early years register has fallen drastically in the past 12 months, with a net loss of more than 2,500 settings, equivalent to 4.5% of the overall sector.

Parents who previously attended a childcare setting that had permanently closed (7%) often found it challenging to secure an alternative, with just one in three (29%) saying it was easy to find a new setting.

Early years settings have struggled to stay afloat over the past 18 months, with falling incomes and the additional costs of implementing Covid measures hitting a sector that was already underfunded.

A Freedom of Information request showed that Department for Education officials had estimated the cost of ‘fully funding’ an early years place would reach £7.49 in 2020/21 – £2.60 more than the £4.89 rate actually paid to settings during that period, or £2,964 per child over the course of a year, based on the 30-hour offer.

My stress levels are higher due to having to balance work and looking after my son at the same time, I am constantly worried about not meeting my job commitments and deadlines.

Commenting, Neil Leitch, Early Years Alliance chief executive, said: “This government has repeatedly told the public it is on the side of working families, but cuts to crucial early care and education tell a different story. Early years settings deliver vital learning and development opportunities to young children, but also provide the quality childcare that parents rely on to work, bring in additional income and further their careers.

“With budgets becoming ever tighter in the face of rising costs and stagnant funding, many nurseries, pre-schools and childminders have been forced to make tough decisions about the days, hours, and flexibility they can offer. As our survey shows, this in turn is forcing parents to make their own difficult choices about their working lives. For settings and families in more deprived areas, these challenges are even more acute.

“We have seen the government documents: ministers are fully aware that early years underfunding is driving up childcare costs – and that this is keeping parents, and especially mothers out of the workplace – and yet they continue to insist that all is fine and refuse to even review what is clearly a broken system.

“We urge the government to seize the opportunity of the spending review this autumn to finally show it has the interests of children and families at heart, something it is yet to demonstrate in any meaningful way.”

A third (36%) of parents surveyed said that difficulties accessing childcare had negatively impacted their work life, with nearly half of those (47%) reporting that it had negatively impacted their mental health (17% overall).

What do parent say?

“I have episodes of stress and anxiety as I struggle to balance childcare needs with work and my marital relationship. Being less able to access informal care for prolonged periods has also put much more of a strain on us.”

“There are limited places for babies in my area. The nursery we attend is due to close due to the landlords not renewing the lease – it’s an outstanding nursery. This will be the fifth one to close. I and other parents have had to move 3 times chasing here and there before work and older children’s drop offs.”

“The after-school club has closed anyway so I have reduced my hours to cover pick up and drop off. Family that may have been able to help have become to too ill and others have become too anxious to be able to help with childcare.”

“I’m on universal credit that requires I pay the childcare first and claim it back, which is ridiculous, because by the time I pay for food and rent there’s not even £150 left for the week.”

Photo by William Fortunato from Pexels

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