23 MARCH 2017

Almost half a million women in England work in childcare. Most earn very little – the average non-management pay in a privately run nursery is about £13,000 a year. But shockingly, some don’t even earn the minimum wage.

Data released by the Department for Education last month shows that one in ten of these nursery staff earn less than the minimum wage – this means about 20,000 people are being underpaid. It is unacceptable for any employer to break the law and pay their staff too little; it is even worse when they are providing government funded childcare.

The job childcare workers do is critical – what happens to children in the early years of their lives shapes their future at school and beyond. High quality childcare is one of the best ways to close the attainment gap between deprived children and their more affluent peers. The Government recognises this, investing about £6bn a year across the childcare and early education system – this pays for free childcare for all three and four year olds and some two year olds, and subsidies to parents paying for childcare through the tax and benefits systems.


Childcare is not a ‘women’s issue’ – all parents are responsible for decisions about their child’s life, and tropes about ‘working mothers’ are tired and outdated as we work towards care being shared more equally between parents. The childcare workforce, however, remains highly gendered: 98% of people working in childcare are women. Part of this imbalance is down to gender stereotyping – as a society, we remain uncomfortable with men taking ‘feminine’ roles, and boys are rarely encouraged to into the caring professions by when they are at school.

But it’s not just about gender norms: the ratio of women to men remains much higher in childcare, at about one to fifty, than it is in nursing (about one to ten) or primary school teaching (about one to six). Nursing and teaching are not lucrative jobs but they pay more than childcare – and crucially are graduate careers with a meaningful chance of career progression and incremental pay increases.

Central and local government must work together to make sure nurseries that break the law do not get taxpayers’ money, and continue to name and shame offenders. But in the longer term, £7.20 per hour is not enough for the people who care for and educate our youngest children. It is inexplicable that we pay half as much for a four year old at nursery than we do for a five year old in the first year of primary school: if we value childcare, we must be willing to fund it properly.

The Family and Childcare Trust is a leading national charity in the field of policy, research and advocacy on childcare and family issues. Find out more about their work here.

Claire Harding, Head of Research at the Family and Childcare TrustABOUT AUTHOR

Claire is the Head of Research at the Family and Childcare Trust. She leads on the organisation’s research projects, including the annual Childcare Survey, and is particularly interested in equality and children’s outcomes.