Childcare: Parents struggle with cost and lack of places

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The Independent Online

ALMOST all childcare in the UK is private. More than 90 per cent of the costs of registered childcare places in the UK are met by parents themselves - around pounds 2.6bn per year. It is more expensive than anywhere else in Europe, the Daycare Trust estimates.

Yet there remains a shortage of childcare places. There are nearly 6 million children under the age of eight in Britain but less than 700,000 registered childcare places - there is only one childcare place for every nine children under eight.

The biggest service by far is provided by childminders with 425,027 registered places, compared with 187,123 day nurseries and 56,322 after- school clubs.

The Chancellor in the last budget indicated that pounds 300m would be put aside for out-of-school care to create 30,000 additional after-school clubs for 1 million children.

Parents with one pre-school child and one child at school typically face childcare bills of around pounds 6,000 per annum - nearly double what they spend on food or housing. While an out-of-school club costs pounds 15 to pounds 30 a week, a childminder costs pounds 80 to pounds 120 per full-time place, a private nursery pounds 70 to pounds 180 and a nanny anything between pounds 80 and pounds 260.

It is unsurprising then that many women turn to ad hoc means of childcare such as friends or partners. It is estimated 45 per cent of working mothers use informal means of childcare. Such arrangements are often unreliable and inadequate and there are no support services geared to help informal childcarers provide appropriate play and learning opportunities for children.

Mothers with good qualifications and high earning power are much more likely to go back to work after having children as they can afford the childcare. Less than a third of mothers with no qualifications return to work compared to three-quarters of mothers with A levels or higher qualifications.

The 1989 Children Act placed a duty on local authorities to provide childcare for children who are in need. Childcare has been acknowledge as a positive form of family support for children whose families are in serious crisis, children whose health or development is in jeopardy and children with disabilities. However, shrinking budgets mean cuts have been made year after year in childcare provision. In England, 32,900 children had places in local authority day nurseries and childminders employed by local authorities in 1985 compared with 28,900 in 1995. A high proportion of these children attended part-time.