Lee Adams feels torn and helpless at the financial situation she faces, which is forcing her to choose between leaving a career she loves or forking out huge childcare costs amid the spiralling costs hitting her family during the cost of living crisis.
As a full-time maths teacher in a secondary school, Lee loves her job and the 34-year-old worked hard to balance work and family life after having her daughter Isla, now three, to make sure she could carry on teaching.
However, now Lee and her husband Scott have new baby son Ari, she feels conflicted about what to do after her maternity leave ends as the extortionate costs of childcare mean she can’t justify paying for two children in nursery so she can go to work full-time.
“I’ve worked it out that it just wouldn’t be feasible for me to go back to work full-time when we have a new baby in nursery as well as I would basically be paying to go to work,” she tells i.
“It would probably be better for me to cut down my hours to three or four days a week rather than pay for those extra days in nursery.”
Lee isn’t alone in this predicament and reveals she knows of many teachers who have reluctantly cut down their hours, or even left teaching altogether, because they can’t afford to go to work as childcare costs too much.
While Lee has no intention of leaving teaching, she knows something will have to give and that they will have to make sacrifices as childcare is so expensive – and this is despite both her and her husband having good jobs.
The family live in Epsom, Surrey, and Lee’s husband Scott is a self employed London taxi driver. “We can only afford to have our daughter in nursery for three days a week and one day a week Scott is off with her as he works one day over the weekend and then on the other day, my mum and stepdad come round to look after Isla,” explains Lee.
“Without their help, I definitely would not have been able to work full-time in teaching for the past couple of years since having Isla.”
Since the arrival of Ari, who is two weeks old, Lee knows the childcare situation will be even harder – particularly when the cost of living crisis means prices for everything have risen so much.
“I am really worried about the cost of heating our house over the winter with a newborn baby while I’m on maternity pay,” she admits. “You can’t scrimp on heating when you have a newborn in the house.
“We have to consider finances a lot more carefully this time around as there are a lot more costs, especially with the cost of living crisis.
“This time, our bills are a lot more than they were when we had our daughter – and we didn’t have nursery fees for another child to pay for when we had her.
“For the majority of my maternity leave, I will be on statutory maternity pay which is not enough to cover everything, so it means my husband has to work more hours to make sure we’re able to cover our bills.”
Lee says there is a myth that teachers don’t have to worry about childcare costs “because they are off for the school holidays”. She also points out that childcare costs need to be paid before children start school – and that it is only when a child turns three that they are entitled to 30 hours of free childcare a week.
Lee’s daughter Isla will be eligible for 30 free hours of nursery from January. However, Lee has discovered that her nursery stretches those hours across 51 weeks of the year. “This is great for some people, but not for us with me being a teacher and Isla being in nursery three days a week in term time only,” she says.
“We are talking to the nursery to see if they can have the 30 free hours in each week during term time rather than stretched across the year as is their standard and they are looking into it.
“But if we can’t do this, it would basically mean a whole extra day every week that we’d have to pay for in nursery costs.
“For our daughter, it costs £92 a day to put her in nursery. But for a baby, it is more like £97 a day.
“There are other nurseries in the area which are slightly cheaper, but when I factor in that our schedule is term time and most of those nurseries you have to pay year-round, it works out the same anyway.
“When my maternity leave finishes and I have two children in nursery, I am facing the choice of either moving them both to a cheaper nursery when places are few and far between – or to go part-time at work so I don’t have to pay for those extra days at nursery.
“That would be a real shame as my daughter loves going to nursery. It’s not just something that is convenient and helpful by making us able to work, but she’s learnt a lot there as it’s a really good nursery.
“It’s a very difficult situation as I’ve spent a long time training and building my way up to get to where I am in work and I would have to make sacrifices with my work if I went part-time as I like working full-time.
“Then my daughter would have to make sacrifices as she wouldn’t be able to see all her friends at nursery as often or take part in all the activities. I feel like I’m letting everyone down by not being able to do this.”
Lee tells i it is a shame childcare costs have become so prohibitive that they are making some teachers feel they have no choice but to cut down their hours or even leave – particularly when there is a shortage of teachers in the UK.
“Over the past few years, I know a lot of female teachers who have gone part-time at work, not because they want to, but out of necessity because of how much childcare costs,” says Lee.
“I know teachers who have left after having a second child because they couldn’t really afford to be working. So instead of going part-time, they took a career break.
“There are a lot of things going on within the teaching sector such as pay not increasing with inflation and there are many people leaving the profession for different reasons.
“But I feel like things like high childcare costs and not being able to pay your bills is pushing out people who want to be teaching, but can’t afford to in the way they want to. This has a knock-on effect on everyone else too as there is more strain on them at work.
“It seems such blind thinking by the Government to say: ‘We’re giving them 30 free hours once their child turns three’ without considering the sacrifices parents have to make before their child turns three.
“You either have to put your career on hold and press pause on what you’re doing; give up your job altogether or make massive sacrifices in the way you’re living.
“The Government keeps saying they want more people in the workforce and they want more teachers. But there are lots of people who want to work but can’t or who want to work more hours but can’t because they don’t have the means available to pay for that childcare.”
Lee adds: “Before we had kids, we knew childcare was expensive, but it is only when you’re going through it that you realise how ridiculously expensive it is.
“We are fortunate that we are not in debt. We are scraping it together and it is a stretch, but we are not really struggling every month.
“But for a lot of people, it is a massive struggle and is forcing them into debt. I can’t imagine what it is like for a single parent as working must be impossible with childcare costs.
“Many will be in a position where they feel stuck and have to wait until their children grow up a bit before they can have any help.”
One teacher, who only wants to be known as Emily, tells i that she and her husband are both teachers and while they look to have good salaries on paper, the reality is that they are plunging into debt and and she is having sleepless nights during her maternity leave worrying about how they will make ends meet.
Things have become so bad, she admitted to i they are even looking at leaving the UK altogether and moving abroad to teach in a country where they feel they are valued more and where working families are supported better.
Emily, who has a two-year-old and a six-month-old baby and is a secondary school teacher, says: “Having two children under the age of two is the straw that has broken the camel’s back.
“A full-time nursery place for each child would cost us £1,400 a month each – but £2,800 a month is more than I earn as a full-time teacher.
“The situation is appalling and I feel completely undervalued. I’m encouraged to go back to work early by the fact that statutory maternity pay and child benefit is so poor.
“But when I go back to work, I feel completely undervalued as a key worker and employee in this country because my entire wage is swallowed up by childcare.
“It is a complete trap for people who have children and the childcare system is broken.”
Emily explains that her husband’s entire monthly wage is going on their essential bills and financial commitments such as mortgage, council tax and utility bills, while her maternity pay is barely covering their food.
She says while she buys clothes for her children, there is no money left for “luxury purchases”, such as clothing for her and her husband and she has stopped wearing make up and perfume to save money.
“Returning to work early is actually not the answer in my case as the cost of childcare would completely cancel out my wage,” she says.
“People think teachers are fine when it comes to childcare, but we have to be in work early so I need childcare from 7am or 7.30am – which very few nurseries do and, if they do, it comes at a premium.
“People also think teachers only have to pay for childcare during term-time. But there are hardly any childcare providers in our area offering term-time only hours, so we’ll end up paying for 13 weeks of childcare twice that we don’t need.
“I am losing sleep worrying about how to make ends meet, let alone what’ll happen when our mortgage is up for renewal next year and I’m watching our credit card debt soar.”
Emily says she and her husband are looking into moving abroad to teach in an attempt to have a better quality of life. “We are looking at moving to a country where I will feel valued as a woman and a mother and where we can have a better quality of life, which isn’t just working to pay for childcare and having no second income,” she explains.
“It is sad because we have pursued careers in teaching which we are passionate about, but we feel totally disillusioned to be working so hard, but struggling so much. This country needs dedicated teachers who love their jobs, but there are so many countries where the childcare system is much better than in the UK.
“Giving up work is not an option as even though my money will go on childcare, I love my job and want to maintain my career.
“I went to the effort of going to university and getting a degree and I’ve got about £36,000 of student debt. What would be the point of that if I stopped working?
“I love teaching and wanted this career path and find it mentally stimulating. There is a massive shortage of teachers and the Government should want people like me to go back to work.
“All our financial commitments are pre-children and our credit card debts are increasing all the time and we have about £10,000 on credit cards.
“The only thing that is keeping my head above water mentally is knowing we both have stable jobs and in a few years’ time when they’re both at school, we can hopefully clear our debts.”
Emily adds: “Even though I am having sleepless nights worrying about our finances at the moment, I consider myself lucky that we have a home, can afford heating and have stable jobs to return to.
“I cannot imagine how single-parent families or low-income households are managing.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general Secretary, at the National Education Union, said: “It is alarming that any parent, including teachers, should have to choose between their career and their children.
“However, this is a reality because of the Government’s continued decision to not meaningfully invest in the early years sector.
“It is time they invested in high-quality, affordable, accessible childcare. Maintained nurseries must be funded and early years professionals must be paid properly to address staffing crises and prevent future closures, so no parent feels unable to work and no teacher feels unable to teach.”
A Department for Education spokesperson toldi: “Improving the cost, choice and availability of childcare for working parents, including teachers, is a key priority for this Government and we are currently exploring a wide range of options to do this.
“We have spent more than £20bn over the past five years to support families with the cost of childcare and thousands of parents are benefiting from government childcare support.
“We have also confirmed the highest pay awards for teachers in a generation – 8.9 percent for new teachers and five percent for experienced teachers and leaders – recognising their dedication and hard work.”
The department states the average teacher salary in November 2021 was £42,360 and they remain committed to delivering £30,000 starting salaries for new teachers to attract and retain the very best teachers.