Soaring Childcare Fees Hit Parents

Working parents are being charged up to £19,000 a year to send their children to nursery — more than the fees for some of Britain’s most prestigious public schools.

New figures reveal that the cost of daycare for babies and young children has increased by almost 30 per cent in six years, more than twice the rate of inflation.

The research, carried out by the Daycare Trust, suggests that full-time nursery care is now not affordable for at least two-thirds of families. Parents in the Home Counties have been worst hit, with bills stretching to £375 a week.

The annual bill in the most expensive areas can reach almost £19,000, at least £5,000 more than many elite private day schools and on a par with the country’s top boarding schools. The average weekly nursery bill is now £152.

Private nurseries are already warning parents that they face even steeper increases this year as the network of government-subsidised children’s centres expands.

The scheme, part of the Government’s £3 billion annual investment in child care, is being introduced to improve nursery access in more deprived areas. However it is also being blamed for pushing up staff costs for private providers, which account for 78 per cent of the nursery care sector at present.

The children’s centres are offering up to £7,000 a year more for managers and nursery nurses, forcing private providers to match the pay or risk losing employees. The salary of a nursery manager in the private sector rose by an average of 12.3 per cent last year, to £21,547.

The bill faced by parents can now exceed the annual fees charged by Dulwich College (£11,895) and St Paul’s (£14,000). It is also more than the £15,000 for the special-needs prep school that Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, recently chose for her son.

Two-thirds of Children’s Information Services, which help parents to find nursery places, reported a lack of affordable child care in their area last year, the Daycare Trust survey said. Alison Garnham, joint chief executive of the trust, said too many parents were still being forced to meet the entire cost of the care.

“With typical childcare costs rising to over a third of average earnings, parents cannot afford to bear the burden of increasing childcare costs alone,” she said.

Children aged 3 and 4 are entitled to 12½ hours a week of free nursery education but this leaves parents with no help at all for the rest of the week, and none at all for the first few years of their child’s life. Other government help is targeted at less well-off families who qualify for the children’s tax credit. About 374,000 families get an average subsidy of £49.

Taken together, the subsidies mean that British parents pay around 70 per cent of childcare costs, compared with an average of 30 per cent in continental Europe — where free nursery care for toddlers has been available for many years.

The Daycare Trust is urging the Government to extend the free entitlement to cover more hours in the week, and to younger children. The Conservatives predicted even higher bills for parents this year when new regulations on the 12½ free hours come into force.

Many nurseries say that the local authority grant they receive to cover the 12½ hours is not enough to cover costs, so charge a top-up fee. This practice will be banned from the spring and many nurseries will either close or admit only the children of fee-paying parents.

Anne McIntosh, Shadow Minister for Education, said: “These results indicate costs for preschool children in England are continuing to rise steadily.

“The Government’s 2006 Code of Practice on nursery provision will exacerbate this problem. Nursery providers, required to adopt the inflexible and unworkable regulations, will be faced with closure, further reducing access to quality childcare provision.”

Beverley Hughes, the Children’s Minister said: “We do appreciate the impact that childcare costs can have on the family budget of lower-income families but we are doing more than ever to make good quality childcare and early education accessible and affordable.”