Who cares?

Mothers appear to be the guinea pigs in an austerity experiment. Antonia Charlesworth talks to four about the current childcare system. Photos: Rebecca Lupton

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A recent report by the Fawcett Society revealed that single mums are being hit the hardest by welfare cuts. House of Commons research, commissioned by Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper, found that £9.6 billion in cuts will come from families, £7 billion of which is from mothers. Added to slashes in funding to Sure Start centres and other vital services, and George Osborne’s announcement that single mothers will have to return to work when their child turns three, and you might think we are witnessing an economic attack on mothers.

David Cameron is preoccupied with the “working family”, driving unemployment rates down and boosting the economy. Plans to boost free childcare for three and four year olds from 15 to 30 hours for 38 weeks of the year in effect support two jobs – the working parent’s and the childcare provider’s. But while they are welcomed by many, organisations such as Mothers At Home Matter argue there is a lack of support for parents wanting to remain in the home. Its spokesperson Imogen Thompson tells Big Issue North: “We would like government policy to recognise that there are costs to providing childcare, whether a parent sacrifices an income to care for their children themselves, or registered, paid-for care is provided by a third party. Currently, support is overwhelmingly in favour of childcare outside the home.

“Families need to have the freedom of choice… [but] providing support for families in which all adults are in paid work, without acknowledging the costs of the unpaid parent at home, puts barriers in place for parents who wish to care for their young children themselves.”

On announcing her bid to be Labour leader Cooper, a working mother of three, wrote in the Independent that she wanted Labour to lead a revolution in family support. Her sentiments echoed those of MAHM.

The children that need free childcare the most will be excluded, thus exacerbating the achievement gap.

“Parents need more choice about returning to work, working part-time or staying at home,” she wrote. “The priority for younger families should be extra family support – for example, changing the way tax credits and child benefit are paid, with higher rates for small children so families can choose whether to use it for childcare or for one parent to stay at home.”

The Family and Childcare Trust agrees that parents should be free to have either option but welcomes the extension of free childcare, if it is implemented effectively. A recent report by the trust found that around 335,000 families could miss out on the financial help because of its sheer complexity and overlap with Universal Credit. The 30 hours of childcare will only be awarded to families where all parents work, meaning children with younger siblings cared for by a stay-at-home parent, for example, won’t be given the option of attending preschool unless parents pay in full. Those in receipt of Universal Credit won’t be entitled and families may not know which form of support is best for them. The parents most at risk, the Childcare Support Gap report found, are those whose income varies from month to month. Children of those with no work prospects won’t receive the free hours either – meaning often the children that need it the most will be excluded, thus exacerbating the achievement gap.

The extension of free childcare from 15 to 30 hours is now set for September 2017, following a legal challenge by current childcare voucher providers that has postponed the plans by over a year. The Childcare Trust says that while many parents will be disappointed with the delay it is essential that the government uses this time to iron out the issues it raised in the Childcare Support Gap report.

For many whose young children started school this month, there will be a huge financial relief – although working hours are rarely in line with school hours, and breakfast and after-school clubs are often required at extra cost. Meanwhile, those with preschool children will continue to receive their 15 hours funding.

Big Issue North spoke to four mothers about their experiences of the current system and how it works – or doesn’t work – for them.

Lola, Maggie, Tova and Sian from Todmorden

Sian, from Todmorden, is a mental health practitioner earning £26,000. Her wife, Lola, is a midwife currently on unpaid extended maternity leave but usually earning £30,000. They have two daughters – Maggie, three and a half, and Tova, 10 months.

“Lola is on maternity at the moment so we’re OK for childcare but we’ve done a variety of working patterns since we had Maggie. In November we’re going to have to rejig everything as Lola’s maternity leave will finish. What tends to happen when we are both working is Lola works three long night shifts, which is in effect full time, but I’ll have to go down from full to part time, probably to three days, so my salary will be pro-rata.

With Maggie, Lola only took nine months maternity leave instead of the additional three unpaid. I was working for myself at the time, and the recession had hit, which made it very difficult to get work, so that’s all we could afford.

We’re currently surviving on my salary alone, which is a struggle. It’s also a struggle just organising work. Prior to Tova, I was part time and when she was born I asked to go full time. When Lola returns I’ll ask to reduce my hours again, so you just have to hope that work will be flexible around it. I’m probably fairly lucky where I work that they are.

Maggie currently uses her 15 free hours, topped up by us to equate to two full days, and the rest of the childcare is managed between us. We also use the childcare vouchers [government scheme allowing you to pay childcare from your pre-tax salary] and the good thing about those is they carry on paying them throughout maternity, which has been a bit of a godsend really.

Maggie goes to a Sure Start nursery, which is brilliant. She goes 8.00am until 6.00pm, because I commute to Manchester, so we pay to top up the extra five hours. We did run into a bit of difficulty because we didn’t realise the 15 free hours only applied to term time. We suddenly got a massive bill last month, which we weren’t expecting.

When Lola returns to work Tova will need childcare too. Obviously we’ll have to pay for that in full, which we expect will be about £35-£40 a day. I think we’ll try a childminder because she’ll be so young, and nursery doesn’t feel quite right, but Maggie will still be in nursery so we’ll be juggling two different childcare providers.”

Georgina, from Blackpool, is an administrative assistant. She earns £7.60 an hour, just above minimum wage, and is currently on unpaid maternity leave. Her partner, Spencer, works in credit control and earns £16,000 a year. They have two children, Scarlett, four, and Jasper, 11 months.

“It wasn’t an option to have them both in nursery at the same time – there would have been no point in me working.”

“When we had Scarlett and my maternity leave finished it was never an option for me to go back to work full time as, in my eyes, we did not have a child for her to go to nursery five days a week. It wasn’t a question of the childcare fees. I want to raise my child, not have nursery carers do it for me. I went back to work three days a week and Scarlett went to nursery for two. A day’s nursery cost half of a day’s wage for me. On the third day my mum, who’s retired, would look after her.

Then we had Jasper and I took one-year maternity leave instead of the nine months, which is just about to come to an end. This means the last three months have been unpaid but it also meant that my maternity leave is ending just as Scarlett starts school. It just wasn’t an option to have them both in nursery at the same time – there would have been no point in me working. So at the moment we survive on Spencer’s salary, which is helpfully topped up by tax credits.

All it takes is careful planning. We don’t go without anything and last year Spencer managed to buy our first home – it would have cost more with me named on it, even though our income is obviously more combined.

Scarlett did get 15 free hours childcare before school started this month but the nursery we use is open the whole year and not just term time, so 15 hours for 38 weeks is spread out over 52. You are also required to use it in full days – 8.00am to 5.30pm – even though she went in 10am-4pm, meaning we had to use nine and a half hours of the 15 hours on one day’s childcare and the remaining hours go to waste because we couldn’t afford to top it up to a full day.

Jasper will be starting nursery next week and I will return to work two days a week. One day’s wage per week will go towards nursery fees but it’s important for me personally to return to work – it’s like having a day off for a stay-at-home mum and it’s a place where I can be Georgina and not Mummy! It helps me hold on to my sanity.

Even though I choose not to put my children in childcare full time I always wanted them to go at least one or two days a week to be able to make friends and socialise, and get them ready for school like pre-school does. Two days a week suits us all perfectly.”

Hannah and Pixie from Wirral

Natalie, from London, is an actuary. She earns upwards of £150,000 a year and is the sole earner in her household. Her husband, Murray, is a stay-at-home dad for their two daughters Lorelei, four, and Aurelia, 23 months.

“Before children Murray and I both worked. Murray was a landscape gardener earning about £100 a day. I qualified as an actuary well before I met Murray so I was already earning this sort of money when I met him. We talked before we even got serious about having kids, and I said if we did he’d have to stay home with them, which he thought was a brilliant idea. Realistically his net salary wouldn’t even cover childcare.

When Lorelei was born Murray carried on working for four months while I was on maternity leave, then we had two months off together before I went back to work and he stayed home. He will now stay home until Aurelia starts school, and even then work options will be limited, what with school holidays and school finishing as early as it does.

We did use our 15 free hours for Lorelei before she started school this month, but it didn’t touch the cost of three mornings in private pre-school in Twickenham. I paid out about £450 a month, but I think pre-school is important for socialising and school preparation. Also, because Murray doesn’t really do play dates or mummy-focused play groups, the girls do a lot of classes, which all add up to some quite hefty outgoings. Lorelei does ballet, drama school, gym and swimming and Aurelia does disco, gym and swimming.

It would cost us more to have Murray working and paying full-time childcare but I also believe, when children are little, the security of having a parent’s love is beneficial. But Murray hasn’t really found it to be what he expected – it’s much harder work and there are
days he’d definitely like to go back to work.

For me, I’d rather work part time but I just couldn’t do as much for my family on a part-time wage. This means I get no me-time though. When I get back from work I’m totally focused on kids. At weekends Murray tends to take time out to go road riding – he’s a mad keen cyclist – but I don’t feel entitled to time away from the kids after being out most hours of the day. That said, I do try and make it home for dinner, leaving the office at five unless I have meetings in the diary.

Lorelei starting school will be a boost financially – she won’t do as many extra activities and I will save the £450 I spend on childcare. It will be a whole year before Aurelia starts pre-school, at which point I’ll be paying it out again. In terms of expense I actually don’t own a London house, I just rent. When Lorelei was two we moved to co-locate with the best local school as catchment areas are so tiny and places are so competitive. Around 350 kids in the area didn’t get a school place in the borough this year. It’s very expensive to be by school – I’m paying £3,500 a month in rent for a four bedroom terrace.”

Hannah, from Wirral, is a student nurse and currently not earning. She is a single mum to Pixie, three, whose dad is absent and unsupportive financially.

“Long days took their toll on Pixie, I would have to take time off work with no pay to look after her, while still paying for the days she missed.”

“I always knew I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mum. I like my independence. I worked as a customer services administrator earning £17,400 and Pixie’s father’s earned £49,000 from his job as a company director. During the course of my pregnancy her father renovated one of his properties into nursery space and it was opened just before Pixie was born, so I knew when I went back to work the cost wouldn’t be an issue. She started one day a week from being four months old and it was great for her.

By the time Pixie was seven months old the relationship had broken down and Pixie and I moved out of the house. I was due back to work shortly after and so requested part-time hours. I was refused so had no choice but to go back full time.

Pixie was in her nursery four days a week and spent one day with his mother but it was a 50 hour week for both of us, having to drive 30 minutes to drop her off and then get to my job on time, then back there in the evening. It was a constant battle to get any help from her father. His office was in the same building as the nursery but he never took her or dropped her off even though we lived five minutes from each other. At least once a week I would get emails telling me I needed to start paying for nursery. I argued that I wasn’t paying into her father’s business for childcare. Pixie attending his nursery was also interfering with the contact we had arranged, because she was in the same building as him. He would sit in the nursery with her for hours a day and then cancel his contact last minute because he had already seen her. I decided to move her to a nursery closer to home.

Fees were approximately £650 per month and I received tax credits to help with the cost but I was still paying almost £250 per month and I got no help with my rent or council tax because I earned too much, so by the time everything was paid for I had very little money. Her father had stopped any maintenance by this point.

Pixie was only one at the time and the long days took their toll on her. She was ill every two to three weeks and I would have to take time off work with no pay to look after her, while still paying for the days she missed. I was haemorrhaging money and I was receiving warnings at work, so I decided to give up my job.

I began claiming income support and Pixie was then awarded 15 hours free nursery once she turned two, which was great for her but didn’t really help me back to work as you need to do at least 16 hours to claim tax credits. I eventually found a part-time job so came off income support and on to tax credits with the childcare element. She still received the grant we were entitled to while on income support too. The only problem was it didn’t cover school holidays, so every six to eight weeks I was left having to pay full fees out of a very small wage. You have the option to call HMRC and claim for the week but it takes so long to come through I ended up in a mess as I was earning less than £300 per month.

All my benefits got reduced to the point where working actually costs me money, so I handed my notice in. I began studying towards my degree and college paid for childcare, and this month I start an NHS course so I get a bursary and childcare allowance of up to 85 per cent of the cost. Between birth and school age childcare costs have ruled my life.”

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