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Parents Could Be Left "Disappointed" By Free Childcare Expansion

Pregnant Then Screwed have organised multiple 'March of the Mummies' protests across the UK (Alamy)

9 min read

The founder of an influential parenting charity has said that the free childcare expansion promised by Government could leave parents “really disappointed” if they do not see a significant fall in their childcare costs.

On Monday, provision of free childcare will be extended to two-year-olds for 15 hours a week, which will then increase to 30 hours for all under-fives from September 2025.

Joeli Brearley, founder of the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, which advocates for and supports pregnant women and parents, welcomes the expansion but told PoliticsHome she is concerned that without additional measures it might make little difference to struggling families. 

The charity carried out a survey in February which showed only 35 per cent of parents in England believe the changes to childcare schemes will reduce their costs. 37.1 per cent of parents said they had to use credit cards, take out a loan or borrow money from family or friends to afford childcare costs, with the figure considerably higher for single mothers. Further research by Pregnant Then Screwed in March has found that the median saving for families from the new schemes will be between £100 – £120, or up to £1,440 a year – much less than the government’s estimated savings of £6,500 a year once the full rollout of schemes is complete.

While Brearley said that she believed many of the issues around how the childcare expansion would be delivered have been “smoothed out”, many parents could be left feeling “really disappointed” as some childcare providers are raising other costs in order to provide the extra free hours. 

“Providers have put up their costs outside of the funded hours and they're charging quite substantial top-up fees, because the money that's provided by the government isn't covering the cost to deliver the cases,” she explained.

She said that parents were now being notified of these unexpected cost increases, causing “big issues” for families on already tight budgets.

“So much of this is a historic issue from three to four year old entitlements which have been around since 2017 and we know that they're underfunded by about £2.50 per child per hour and the government hasn't fixed that issue – instead, they've increased the entitlements.

“[The government] needs to increase the three to four year old entitlement so it covers the cost to deliver those places. That's the most urgent thing that needs to happen and it needs to happen right now.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said that it has been independently confirmed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) that the government is paying a higher average rate than parents would pay at the market rate for the new entitlements, and roughly the same for the existing entitlements.

“We have also committed to further increases to rates for the next two years covering both existing and new entitlements, backed by an estimated £500 million, as well as our national recruitment campaign and cash incentive pilot of up to £1,000 to encourage new staff into the sector," they said.

“Even before all of this, we had already seen over 40,000 more childcare places in the past five years alone.”

A survey of nearly 1,200 childcare providers by the Early Years Alliance in February found that nearly a quarter – 24 per cent  – said it was very or somewhat likely they would have to close in the next 12 months due to cost pressures. According to modelling carried out by the Early Education and Childcare Coalition, around 50,000 more childcare professionals needed to meet the government’s free childcare pledges. But with many earning only minimum wage, there is a continuing crisis in childcare recruitment and retention.

“We need a proper workforce strategy, we haven't had a Workforce Strategy since 2017,” Brearley said.

“The government of course, has started paying for adverts on the TV for childcare professionals and they've said they'll give a small group a £1,000 ‘Golden Handshake’.

“But that does nothing to improve retention of childcare providers, and people are not stupid: they're not going to go into a profession which is really underpaid and overworked just for a one-off payment of £1,000. We need a much better, more robust strategy that deals with the recruitment and retention crisis.”

Labour’s shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson has commissioned a review of the government’s childcare scheme. Describing it as a “total mess” in an interview with the BBC last week, she refused to commit to adopting the government’s scheme if Labour is in power in 2025.

“It’s encouraging that they [Labour] are doing the review,” Brearley said.

“But we're not encouraged by the fact that still we're not seeing any announcement on how much funding there will be available, whether there are any plans at all. 

“So we're still in a sort of no man's land really about where this will end up, and the impact of that on parents is enormous because they need to know what's going to happen to their bills. So we would really encourage Labour, once this review is completed, to make some very swift decisions about what they're going to do and make some announcements about how they're going to fix it.

“What the Conservatives have proposed and the way they're spending money is really inefficient. There are much better ways that you could spend that money that will improve the lives of more families, and will improve the quality and sustainability of childcare.”

For Brearley, the issue goes beyond Westminster politics to the way the whole country speaks about and values female-dominated professions, which are on average paid less than male-dominated professions. 

“We often say when we hear people say when we talk about the gender pay gap, it's because women go into low paid professions,” she said.

“Why are those professions low paid? Care work is the most valuable work there is – without it, society collapses. Why are we undervaluing it and not paying it effectively? There absolutely is an issue about how we talk about and value care in the UK.”

Named as one of the top 100 most influential Women in Westminster by The House in 2024, Brearley is a grassroots success story: Pregnant Then Screwed has fed into many consultations around the childcare expansion, as well as a number of legislative acts coming into force this week, such as the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act and the Protection from Redundancy (Pregnancy and Family Leave) Act.

The secret to her success, Brearley said, was her determination to emphasise the direct experiences of pregnant women and parents, including her own. Now leading Pregnant Then Screwed as a full-time job, Brearley started her campaigning after struggling with her own personal experience of maternity discrimination. In 2015, she was sacked by voicemail from her job as an innovation manager in the digital sector when she told her employer that she was pregnant.

When she tried to take legal action, Brearley said she realised it was “completely impossible and the whole legal system didn't work”. Enraged, she set up a platform for women to tell their stories anonymously. It has since mushroomed into a charity operation with more than 100 volunteers and a team of full time staff, including HR professionals and employment lawyers who offer advice and support to women who need it.

“I started it because I was bloody furious and I was talking really honestly and candidly about my experience and people related to that,” she said.

“The most important thing you can do is build your community, that should be your absolute key focus. This kind of community was built around these really honest experiences of women and mothers, and that meant that as the community grew, we became a force that ministers couldn't ignore any longer. 

“It meant that the press were interested in what we're talking about, because we could get cases, we could get data. We were getting out on the streets and shouting about it.”

She suggested that where many campaigners “go wrong” is by focusing too heavily on parliamentary and government engagement rather than primarily directing resources to building a community and case studies that demonstrate how widespread and systemic an issue is.

As the UK approaches a general election, Brearley has her eye on a number of issues that she wants to push the major parties to include in their party manifestos, including calling for six weeks of paternity leave for fathers. The charity is also continuing to campaign against pregnancy and maternity discrimination, which she described as a much more "hidden problem".

"The economic argument is now so well-documented for childcare, and because the prices have increased so dramatically over the last few years that it's affecting all families negatively, that is why that issue has crossed the line and has got the attention that it needs to get," she said.

"With pregnancy and maternity discrimination, it's done behind closed doors. People can't talk about it publicly because they're branded a troublemaker, and so they'll get pushed out of their job or they sign a nondisclosure agreement, which gags them from speaking publicly. So it's much harder to get attention on that issue."

The vast majority of recommendations made by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in a 2016 report on maternity discrimination have not been implemented by the UK government in the eight years since. 

"Sadly that has fallen back down the list of priorities and without the research and the evidence, it's very hard to make a case for further changes to legislation," Brearley said.

"It shows how long it takes for anything like that to actually change."

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