Parents are being forced out of work to look after their children, as charities say nurseries across the country are shutting at an unprecedented rate.
Meanwhile, others are increasing their prices due to the cost of living crisis - prompting charities to warn that low-income families will struggle the most to access childcare in the coming months.
‘It’s an uphill battle being a working mother’
Alexandra O’Connor, mum to one-year-old Emmeline, said that “as a new mum” she has been “blindsided” by the pitfalls of the childcare system.
She told NationalWorld that in the past few months, her daughter’s nursery has closed several times due to staff shortages and lack of funding.
Because of the late notice, she is forced to take unpaid leave from her job as a human resources manager.
“It’s incredibly stressful,” Alexandra said. “I have to pay childcare bills regardless of whether Emmeline’s nursery is open or not, so I’m basically paying to work at this point.
“It’s an uphill battle being a working mother.”
She explained that many of the workers are quitting because there is no funding for them to get properly trained, leaving her fearful for the future of her daughter’s nursery.
The mum-of-one, who lives in Tunbridge-Wells, Kent, told NationalWorld: “If it closes down, I won’t be able to work anymore.
“It’s completely frustrating. I want to be able to contribute to society and I want to stay in work because that’s the example I’m looking to set for my daughter.
“I don’t want to be forced to leave the working world until she starts school.”
She has contacted other nurseries in her local area, but the waiting lists stand at roughly a year.
Alexandra also explained that she feels there is an assumption that grandparents, particularly grandmothers, will help families fill the gaps that childcare cannot.
But since her mother has passed away, and her husband’s family is based in Australia, Alexandra says they “have been left at a disadvantage.”
She continued: “It’s proof that we need more women at the top, because unless you’re in the situation, you don’t understand how frustrating it is.”
‘It’s not sustainable during a cost of living crisis’
Antoinette, who lives in north-west London, has a three-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old son with autism and special educational needs - both of whom need childcare while she works as a freelance consultant.
However, she has been unable to find any early years provision at all over the summer for her daughter, and only minimal care for her son.
She said: “There is not much provision for children with learning difficulties and special needs.”
As a single mother already struggling with energy costs, not being able to work - as a result of not being able to find childcare - means she takes a real financial hit.
“It’s not sustainable during a cost of living crisis. It’s very difficult,” she told NationalWorld. “I haven’t been able to work over the summer and I’m having to cut back on things.”
Antoinette said that she will be able to return to work when her son returns to school and her daughter’s nursery re-starts in September, but explained that the community had been fundraising for her local nursery to ensure it stays open.
She commented: “Nurseries are so important for children, especially for those with special needs, because it gives them the opportunity to socialise and learn to make friends before going to school.
“It’s unfair if they don’t get that.”
‘Decades of underfunding’
Early Years Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch told NationalWorld that in the past year, his organisation has been forced to close nearly half of its nurseries.
He attributed these closures to “decades of underfunding” and a staff recruitment and retention crisis in the sector - which is particularly impacting rural communities and areas of deprivation.
Mr Leitch told NationalWorld: “It is a complete opposite of the Government’s levelling up agenda.
“It’s almost criminal to have a levelling up agenda and then ignore some of the most fundamental services. It’s disgraceful.”
A freedom of information request, sent to the Early Years Alliance after a two-and-half-year battle with the Department for Education, showed that the Government has given the sector just £300million of funding, despite predicting that it would cost £2billion to fully fund childcare by 2020.
Mr Leitch commented: “Caring for and educating our youngest children is a huge part of our social responsibility.
“The first five years of a child’s life are the most formative and pivotal in their development, so if you adequately invest in these years, you get the biggest return on human capital.
“But the reality is we do the complete reverse. We invest a pittance compared to other countries.”
He argued that the UK focuses funding only on children of a school age, ignoring those under five years old and instead treating early years provision as “babysitting”.
The Early Years Alliance chief executive also pointed out that the UK ranks at the top in terms of the highest percentage of a mother’s income spent on childcare and education, according to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
“It’s a pretty grim place to be,” he continued. “If we’re making it tougher and tougher for parents, particularly mothers, to go back to work because they cannot afford to pay for childcare, it poses a major problem.
“It means young children’s education and development goes by the wayside.”
Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, claimed her organisation has been warning the Government for years that the childcare sector is on the brink of collapse.
She told NationalWorld: “Childcare providers are closing their doors at a rate we have never seen before.
“We are being inundated with messages from frantic mothers who are being forced to leave their job as a result, thrusting more families into poverty.”
But there are even issues for families whose nurseries remain open - as some are increasing their prices to survive during the cost of living crisis.
Managing director of Coram Family and Childcare Megan Jarvie said: “The steep rise [in costs] comes at a time of record inflation and threatens to push families into deeper financial distress.
“Many parents, particularly mothers, will have no choice but to be locked out of work altogether or struggle to pay for basic necessities such as food or rent.”
What the Government said
DfE spokesperson said: “We know there are challenges facing the sector, which is why we are increasing funding to support employers with their costs, investing millions in better training for staff working with preschool children, and have set out plans to help providers run their businesses more flexibly.
“This includes plans to support more childminders into the market by reducing upfront costs.”
The spokesperson added that the Government has spent more than £4bn in the past five years to support families with childcare costs.