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Childcare in the UK becoming less affordable and reliable

The percentage of parents with children aged 0 to 4 who find it difficult to pay for childcare has increased from under a quarter in 2021 (24%) to around a third (32%) in 2022, according to new government data.

There was also a decrease in the percentage of working mothers who felt they have reliable childcare. 

In 2022, 38% of working mothers of 0 to 14 year olds said that having reliable childcare had helped them go to work, a decrease from 42% in 2021. 

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Samantha Gould, head of campaigns at NOW: Pensions, said the findings highlight how important access to affordable and reliable childcare is for working mothers.

She said: “The extortionate cost of childcare in the UK is prohibitive to most working women and a clear reason many have been forced to leave the workforce, change their working patterns or stifle career aspirations. 

“This cannot continue if we are to encourage parents (particularly mothers) to make meaningful contributions to the workforce throughout their lives.”

Gould said the decrease in affordable childcare creates a parenting penalty.

She added: “The UK’s childcare fees are some of the highest in the OECD, with full-time childcare costing significantly more than the average mortgage per year. 

“This leaves many parents with no option but to take extended career breaks or work longer hours just to cover the costs.

“This lack of affordable childcare is a barrier that undermines gender equality, retirement prospects and workforce stability.”

Under three-quarters (73%) of mothers with children aged 0 to 14 were in work in 2022, a rise from 71% in 2021 and 63% in 2010.

The percentage of mothers working full-time doubled between 2010 (25%) and 2022 (41%).

Jo Bristow, people development and career transition consultant at The Connor Consultancy, said the move to hybrid working is likely to have driven this trend. 

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “Working mothers’ having more flexibility around where and when they work has lessened the burden of finding childcare that matches their working schedules. 

“Companies should take note of this and stop trying to impose a blanket back-to-office policy when it doesn’t make sense for everyone.  

“Many of the parents we work with complain about being forced to return to the office because the additional hours of commute each day prevent them from being able to drop off and pick up their children from school or spend quality time with them.”

With more mothers working full-time, Bristow said employers should consider specific support to parents, especially those that are about to return to work following parental leave.

She said: “I myself am a working mum and I know how hard it is to manage the logistics of looking after children – childcare and school admin and payments, physically getting them to and from childcare and activities, not to mention all the other aspects of running a home and life alongside work commitments.  

“This can feel hugely overwhelming for parents about to return to work after a period of leave.”

Gould said that to end the UK’s parenting penalty, the government must go further with its childcare reforms. 

She said: “The recent decision to extend free childcare hours to under-twos is positive, but also falls short of a fully fledged solution to the cost of childcare crisis. 

“We need to create a fairer system where parents can contribute to the workforce and take time out if needed, while still being able to save for a comfortable retirement.”

The data published 27 July is available here.