Skip to main content

The total fertility rate in the UK has fallen to a record low of 1.49 per woman. This is not due to a lack of desire to have children but rather the financial, social and emotional cost of doing so. Without sufficient government support, having children will become the purview of the wealthiest in society, whilst those on more modest incomes will be squeezed out. This is deeply unjust.

Clearly, more must be done to reduce the prohibitively high barriers to starting a family. Improving access to affordable childcare and encouraging fathers to take a more active role in caring responsibilities are two key ways that we can better support families, so that those who currently feel unable to raise children are able to.

At present, childcare costs are exorbitant, According to the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), it costs, on average, £138 per week to send a child under two to nursery for 25 hours per week. This makes childcare in the UK one of the most expensive globally, contributing to the eye-wateringly high costs of raising a child – it has been estimated that the minimum cost to raise a child in the UK up to 18 was £76,167 for couples and £103,100 for lone parents. Such unaffordable childcare increases financial instability for families, driving those on modest incomes to use up savings and even to take on debt to pay for childcare. It also entrenches unequal caregiving responsibilities, as a recent survey showed that 70% of mothers believed that “after paying for childcare it doesn’t make financial sense” to return to work. 

While the Government has made some effort to reduce childcare costs and encourage more equal sharing of caring responsibilities, the impact of these measures is questionable. In the 2023 Spring Budget, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a phased plan to provide up to 30 hours of free childcare per week for eligible households in England, starting from children as young as nine months, as Bright Blue had called for. Yet the Chancellor’s move may not actually put money back into families’ pockets, as nurseries continue to struggle to recruit and retain the staff needed to meet the increased demand for government funded childcare. Indeed, Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, has said that childcare is “in the midst of the worst…recruitment and retention crisis in recent memory,” due to various issues such as low pay and poor career progression. Without the capacity to provide additional childcare, raising the hours available for free childcare is essentially meaningless – it will fail to make raising children any more feasible for those on modest incomes.

Fortunately, steps can be taken to help rectify this. In tandem with increasing the amount of funded hours, the Government, in order to meet the increased demand for childcare, must also incentivise childcare professionals to stay in and return to the sector. This could be achieved through matching the pay that nursery staff and managers receive with that of primary teachers or making the sector a more attractive, long-term career option; enabling the demand for childcare to be met and  giving  families the chance  to access the affordable childcare that they desperately need. 

Beyond the formal childcare sector, more can be done to help families struggling with child-raising, specifically, by encouraging the greater involvement of fathers. Currently, women, including working mothers, are still taking on the majority of caregiving responsibilities  – and are bearing the financial costs of this. More fathers spending increased time caring for their child is sorely needed to lessen this burden. 

As such, the Government amended the Paternity Leave Regulations, with the changes coming into force in April. The amendments include allowing employees to split their two-week entitlement into separate one-week blocks, extending the timeframe for taking paternity leave and reducing the notice period required to take the leave. While these changes are undoubtedly positive, ultimately, the amount paid leave is still the same, limiting the potential for fathers to spend more time with their child.  

So, on top of the recent amendments, the Government should be looking to extend statutory paternity leave – indeed over a quarter (29%) of UK employers already back an increase to four or six weeks. Further, paternity leave should be made non-transferable. In other words fathers either take the leave or lose the leave. This will be of most benefit to fathers on lower incomes, while higher earning fathers are often able to afford to take longer leave, those on more modest incomes sometimes take no leave at all. Non-transferablity incentivises uptake; making the emotional and economic benefits of paternity leave possible by helping to reduce a partners’ stress and get mothers back in the workforce sooner, which in turn reduces the gender-pay gap and  boosts economic output.

The benefits of enhancing paternity leave are clear, the backing from employers is there, all that remains is for the Government to act and show that it is serious about supporting families, especially those on modest incomes.

While measures, such as ensuring access to affordable, funded childcare and extending paternity leave are unlikely to reverse the declining fertility rate – they will, nonetheless, help to alleviate the financial and emotional burdens of raising children.

Sarah Kuszynski is a Research Assistant at Bright Blue.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Sandy Millar]