Firms urged to offer more flexibility for working parents as government rejects review of childcare costs

DfE says it will not look into changing the system ‘at this time’ despite research finding almost all employees with children say care is too expensive

The government has said that now is not the time to review the childcare system in the UK, despite research showing almost all working parents find the cost of childcare prohibitive.

A poll of 20,000 working parents found that nearly every respondent (97 per cent) said the cost of childcare in the UK was too expensive, with nearly two in five (38 per cent) who were in full-time employment or single parents reporting that they paid more for childcare than their rent or mortgage.

The findings, published on Sunday (11 September) by the Guardian, were produced and distributed by a confederation of organisations including Pregnant Then Screwed, the Fawcett Society and Working Families.

Despite these findings, Vicky Ford, Conservative MP and under-secretary of state for education, told MPs this week that it “would not be appropriate to launch a separate independent review of childcare at this time”.

In a debate responding to a petition calling for an independent review of the childcare system, which received over 100,000 signatures, Ford said that any findings of a review would not be able to feed into the government’s spending review.

“The government invested a significant amount in early education and childcare, including £3.5bn for each of the past three years on funding our entitlements for two, three and four-year-olds,” she said, adding that since June 2020 the Department for Education had received no reports from local authorities regarding a significant lack of sufficient childcare places for parents who need them.

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The research published over the weekend found 96 per cent of respondents believed ministers were not doing enough to support parents with the cost and availability of childcare.

Simon Kelleher, head of policy and influencing at Working Families, said that for businesses childcare was becoming more than just an HR issue. “The rising number of vacancies, and changing employee attitudes around work, is increasingly making the topic of childcare a business issue rather than a HR matter,” he said.

Childcare costs were still a prohibitive barrier for parents and carers who want to re-enter the labour market or progress their careers, he said, and while the government had a responsibility to ensure a lack of affordable childcare wasn’t preventing jobs from being filled, employers could also take steps to ease the financial burden.

Offering flexible hours can help parents avoid the additional costs of breakfast clubs, while job sharing arrangements can make sure employees will not have to sacrifice professional development because of caring responsibilities, Kelleher said.

Parents “value the opportunity to work flexibly to accommodate their childcare needs, and are more likely to apply for jobs advertised as flexible,” Kelleher added, suggesting that businesses advertise the flexible working options available during the recruitment process.

Joeli Brearley, founder and CEO of Pregnant then Screwed, added: “Some companies go further and offer onsite childcare,” and suggested that employers could also partner with local childcare providers to reduce costs for employees.

Astrid Beekhuis, HR director in EMEA at Momentive, told People Management that HR teams needed to be present for employees and ask themselves how they can help to turn a situation around if parents were struggling. 

She advised that companies reflect and ask themselves whether access to childcare is a barrier to delivering on work and performing at your firm’s best. “Beyond the time and money investment, there’s the value add of providing resources to help balance priorities,” she said.