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‘The cost is insane’: the UK parents unable to afford childcare

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Sophie Cole loved her job. A primary school teacher in Hertfordshire for more than a decade, she was part of her school’s senior leadership team and had studied for a masters in teaching and learning.

But when she started looking for childcare after her second child she found that the cost for two children under three for the three-and-a-half days she worked was wildly more than she and her husband could afford.

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“It was more than my salary – quite a bit more,” she says. “I started panicking. We tried to find a solution but in the end we couldn’t justify the cost. There was no point in me teaching because I’d be spending more money than I earned for someone else to look after the children.”

So she quit her job. Cole says she feels lucky to be able to look after her children – she has taken a flexible administration role that she can fit around their care – but devastated that she had to leave a career in which she had invested so much.

“I’m very ambitious and I loved the school I worked in. I had a meeting with my headteacher who was really understanding, but I did cry. I hope I will be able to go back into teaching, but I feel like I’ll have to start all over again.”

A tweet in April about Cole’s situation, by this reporter, went viral to her surprise, with more than 27,000 people liking it.

“I knew other people were going through the same thing, but the fact that so many people feel so strongly made me feel a little bit empowered,” she says. “I’m just an ordinary person going through life – there are so many people trying to voice that this is a problem.”

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View image in fullscreenTravis Newton with his seven-year-old son and three-year-old twins. Photograph: Travis Newton

Among them is Travis Newton, 40, who has a seven-year-old boy and three-year-old twins. Because of the cost of childcare in Essex his mother moved in with the family from Monday night to Friday to help out.

“The cost is insane,” he says. “My wife and I both have reasonably well-paid jobs – I’m a senior business analyst and she’s an executive assistant – I’m just not really sure how other people manage.”

View image in fullscreenIona Hanrahan and her children. Photograph: Family handout

Iona Hanrahan, 38, a self-employed solicitor and single parent from Newark, says she accrued debts paying for childcare in advance while on universal credit, because her income fluctuated and she often did not receive any reimbursement. “It was impossible to get out of this cycle – I ended up cancelling my claim. It made me depressed and anxious constantly,” she says.

View image in fullscreenAndrea Barry and her daughter. Photograph: Family handout

Andrea Barry, a 35-year-old charity worker in York with a three-year-old daughter, says childcare costs stopped her taking a promotion at a different charity because the pay bump would have been swallowed. “Even at three days a week with the tax-free discount we spent over £600 a month on childcare. That’s more than our mortgage.”

Cole is keen to point out that she knows many parents face more challenging situations, but she wants to be part of a growing collective calling for change.

“Parents shouldn’t have to choose between family or career,” she says. “I didn’t quit my job as a teacher – I was forced to leave my career because the childcare system I’m supposed to rely on didn’t give me any other option.”