ON my calendar at home there’s a date in August which is ringed in red with lots of exclamation marks beside it.
It is a red letter day of the highest order – the day my daughter starts school. A big occasion in her life, and in ours. And an even bigger occasion for our family bank balance. Even more excitingly, the same day she enters the education system proper, our youngest also starts his pre-school nursery place in the school nursery class.
For the first time in almost eight years we will be paying just a couple of hundred pounds a month to a private nursery to look after him for three half days a week. I cannot wait to see the overdraft shrink. We might even be able to go abroad on a family holiday in 2013 – our first since our first child was born in 2004.
Nobody doubts that having children is an expensive business, and you accept that fact from the moment you look at the price of prams, cots and nappies. But at least these things are one-off payments, or get subsumed into the weekly shop, when you face up to the fact that pull-ups are probably more important than a bottle of Pinot Grigio (well sometimes).
But childcare costs? They are unremittingly relentless – and they go up every year, no matter how many kids you have. While your salary might be stalling thanks to pay freezes, nursery prices and after-school club fees like fuel prices, just keep on keeping on.
Of course if one of us didn’t work, then we wouldn’t be faced with such huge bills. But then nor would we be able to offer our children the kind of lifestyle we would like them to have. Not that there’s anything excessive about that – but we do want to say yes when they ask about football classes, ballet, athletics and so on.
Nor would we be living in the house that we do, although again, to afford a family home we had to move out of Edinburgh, which on the flipside saw the childcare costs actually reduce.When in Edinburgh, to have put my two children into private nursery so I could work three days a week, it would have cost us more than £1000 a month – and that was five years ago. Where we are now, having two in part-time nursery costs £745 a month, a relative bargain given the news this week that in Scotland some parents are paying £12,000 a year to nurseries.
That revelation comes less than a year after it was revealed that a growing number of Scottish parents were forced to quit jobs or turn down work because childcare costs were rising and that more than half of average part-time earnings were being spent on it – higher than anywhere else in the world.
And things could get worse. If the UK Government presses ahead with plans to withdraw child benefit from families in which at least one earner is in the higher-rate tax bracket from the start of 2013, middle-income families will be affected.
At the other end of the spectrum, lone parents of children as young as five will be moved from Income Support to Jobseeker’s Allowance, which means they will have to apply for jobs or potentially lose their benefits. And if they get a job, they will then have to find childcare, opening up a whole new problem.
Now the Daycare Trust charity wants the Scottish Government to implement an Early Years Framework to legislate to provide a childcare place for every youngster. Already down south there’s a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide “affordable” childcare – but it doesn’t exist in Scotland.
On top of that, because of council tax freezes many councils, in a bid to save money, have withdrawn from partnerships with private nurseries where they gave a grant to supply pre-school education, so the parents using those nurseries are now paying even more.
The Early Years Framework would be extremely progressive, but perhaps governments should also be looking at reducing business rates for private nurseries – as the rise in these gets passed on direct to parents – as well as increasing subsidies to parents using nurseries (after all they do offer social care and education which until a child is three is not yet available from the state sector).
All or any such moves would cue cat calls from the childless along the lines of “You wanted kids, you pay for them”. It’s true. We did and we do. But parents shouldn’t be punished for having children and trying to work and aspire to the standard of living they want – which for most is being able to support your family and not to have to claim any benefits.
After all, being able to work and be financially independent is in the interests of both families and the wider society; Whitney Houston may no longer be with us, but she sang about children being the future, and it’s an undeniable truth. My children, your children, will be the adults of the future paying taxes and supporting all of us – including the childless – in old age. They’ll be the one cleaning up after us and trying to make our last years comfortable.
Surely we could make their early years the best they can be by providing affordable childcare, and lifting parents out of the stress of borderline poverty caused by rising childcare costs.