If you pay for childcare, how much does it cost you per month?
A mother posted that question on the Facebook page of a group that's based locally to me, and the variation in childcare costs for families based in the same area as one another astounded me.
It's also well documented that the costs of childcare can be prohibitive, leaving many families feeling that they can't actually afford to work. Indeed, the average cost of full-time childcare is £212 per week. Tot that up on a monthly basis for more than one child and it's no wonder work feels unaffordable for some.
So if you're feeling the strain of paying for childcare, be sure you're claiming everything you can, and don't forget the 'free' childcare options available to you. My youngest isn't yet three but she's about to start nursery school at a funded place five days a week, which means I'm able to almost double my working hours without paying a penny on childcare. It's well worth looking into your options and not assuming you know what's out there in terms of affordable childcare.
Here's a rough guide to what you might be entitled to:
In England, three and four year olds can get 570 hours of free early education or childcare per year. This will increase to 30 hours per week but that's currently being trialled in key locations around the country - and critics say it's an underfunded scheme and that some providers will be asking parents to contribute to the running costs of providing these 'free' places.
In Scotland, three and four year olds can get 600 hours per year (roughly 16 hours per week) of early learning and childcare.
And in Wales, three and four year olds can get 10 hours a week of free early education.
In Northern Ireland, funded pre-school places are available in nursery schools, primary schools with nursery facilities and some voluntary and private pre-school childcare centres like playgroups and day nurseries.
It's also worth noting that some two year olds may also be eligible for these schemes.
You may also be entitled to claim what's called the Childcare Element of Working Tax Credit. Don't make the mistake of thinking that this is the same as claiming Child Tax Credits though - the two things are completely separate.
To claim the Childcare Element of Working Tax Credit you must work for 16 hours a week or more. The maximum childcare costs considered are £175 a week for one child or £300 a week for more than one child. You can be awarded up to 70% of what you pay or 70% of the maximum childcare costs – whichever is lower.
You can find out more about claiming the Childcare Element of Working Tax Credit here: https://www.gov.uk/working-tax-credit/how-to-claim
Another option is to apply for childcare vouchers via your employer, but doing so may affect your Tax Credits payments. The current voucher scheme is going to be replaced by a new scheme, Tax-Free Childcare, in 2018 which allows families to get 20% of their annual childcare costs covered. But it seems the existing voucher scheme will run concurrently and some families may be better off on that, so you're best to apply for it now if you think it might help you.
It's bonkers that this is such a minefield but I think the best way of understanding whether you can get financial help with childcare costs is to ask other local parents what they do. I'd never have known that my daughter could do two years of 'free' pre-school if it hadn't been for another mum at the school-gates urging me to apply.
We'd love to hear what Playpennies readers think about childcare. What solutions have you found to the ongoing challenge of working parenthood? What works best for you? And if you've applied for financial assistance, how helpful has it been? And what single piece of advice would you offer other parents trying to work out how best to juggle work and childcare?
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