Parents plan return to work after government extends free childcare

More parents are planning to enter or re-enter the workforce after this month’s Spring Statement pledged to do more to address the childcare crisis.

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Two thirds of parents with children aged between one and two say free childcare measures, as presented in last week’s Spring Budget, will encourage them to enter or rejoin the workforce.

In a survey of 1,002 parents, who are either employed, unemployed, or on parental leave, 65% said free childcare would incentivise them to seek additional working hours.

This figure rises to 77% amongst parents who have already given up work due to the cost of childcare. The research was carried out by global hiring platform Indeed.

Business owners are increasingly hunting for ways to make their organisations more parent-friendly, as surging childcare costs threaten the careers of some of the UK’s most talented employees. As they have discovered, the issue is anything but child’s play.

Below, we dig into the Indeed research further to see where the biggest challenges lie for employers, and locate the easy wins.

Government pledges to do more to tackle shortage of childcare providers

The childcare crisis has been threatening UK labour participation for several years now. One report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states that the UK has some of the highest childcare costs in the world.

Early years care fees are estimated to cost around £105.76 per week, according to the Coram 2022 Childcare Survey.

That accounts for around 17% of the median income for a UK household. As a result, many parents are being priced out of the workforce, choosing care duties over a career.

In a bid to lure more parents back to work, the government pledged 30 hours of free childcare a week for children aged nine months to school age in the Spring Budget earlier this month.

But those who were after immediate financial aid for their toddlers have also been handed a significant roadblock.

Most will find themselves ineligible for the government’s support plan, as the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt has announced that the proposed support will be rolled out in stages. From:

  • April 2024 – parents with children over 2 years old can claim 15 hours free childcare per week
  • September 2024 – parents with children aged over 9 months can claim 15 hours free childcare per week
  • September 2025 – parents with children over 9 months can claim up to 30 hours free childcare per week

Most working parents seek to increase hours, but a return to full-time work remains out of reach for many

In spite of the staggered nature of the government’s childcare support package, the Indeed survey shows promising signs that it will go some way towards bolstering the UK workforce.

Still, the extended timeline of the childcare rollout seems to have halted a complete return to work for parents. Most of these respondents are looking to increase their working hours instead of entering full-time work.

Of those not currently working but are planning to return, nearly half (44%) said they would look for a part-time role compared to 22% of parents who will look for a full-time job.

Parents who had previously cut back on work to care for their children now say they plan to increase their working hours by around 78% to 26 hours a week, on average.

Lower earners plan to increase working hours the most, confirming that they had been most affected by the childcare crisis.

Parents earning £15,000 or less said they would double their working week from 12 hours to 24 hours when the scheme is implemented. In comparison, those earning £55,000 and above plan to increase their hours from 22 hours to 29 hours a week (a 33% increase).

Research shows that parents still face barriers to work – especially mothers

Despite the government’s extension to its free childcare offering, parents still face barriers to expanding their working hours.

Of those that said they would not be looking to increase hours or return to work even when they become eligible for free childcare, the most common reasons stated were:

  • Mental health (28%)
  • Lack of flexible hours (26%)
  • Childcare still being too expensive (25%)
  • Lack of remote work opportunities (19%).

Gender seems to be another barrier for parents seeking to balance a job alongside care commitments. Alarmingly, 81% of mothers not working due to the current cost of childcare say it has caused them to sacrifice their careers (compared to 62% of fathers).

Over two-fifths (41%) of mothers felt the opportunity to progress their careers was one of the biggest motivators to increase their work hours or go back to work. Only 16% of fathers felt similarly.

How can business owners support parents returning to work?

Labour market figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that 79,000 parents dropped out of the workforce between 2021-22 because of care commitments. Indeed’s findings suggest this is due to the financial pressures of using an early years care provider.

Hiring managers are struggling to find talent in a rapidly deserted jobs market. Many are turning to alternative recruitment routes like employing ex-cons or overseas workers.

Some experts have called for businesses to focus on hiring over 50s, many of whom retired during the pandemic. However, rather than attempting to persuade settled older workers to ‘unretire’, many have switched their attention to fixing the childcare barrier by introducing parent-friendly initiatives or policies.

Alongside asking respondents about their career plans, Indeed also surveyed parents on what would get them back into the workforce full-time.

One of the incentives most commonly highlighted was flexible working hours (75%). These were described as far more important than remote working opportunities (43%).

Startups’ guide to the top benefits and perks for retaining employees outlines some of the flexible working arrangements that employers can offer parents. For example, carers’ leave and extended parental leave.

Businesses do not need to move mountains to ease the pressure on parents, however. Small measures that show sensitivity and understanding towards the demands placed on caregivers will still help to boost confidence about returning.

Introducing a hybrid work policy, complete with training for line managers, should be a first step for employers. 40% of those who Indeed surveyed cited an empathetic manager as a key pillar of support for those looking to be eased into more work.

This should not just be offered to those with toddlers or young children. The childcare issue has also been exacerbated by a wave of teacher strikes, which has left those with kids under 16 struggling to find suitable supervision while they are at work.

Bill Richards, UK Director at Indeed said: “[The government pledge] is a step in the right direction but childcare alone is not a silver bullet that will solve worker shortages and returning workers need more than just financial support to build or rebuild their careers.

“Parents seek flexibility, empathy and equality from employers and those who prioritise these requirements stand a better chance of attracting parents back to work.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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