Top Nurseries Cost £30,000 a Year. That’s More Than Half the UK Population Earns

For parents, child care is often the second-highest cost after a mortgage.

(Bloomberg) — Farm-to-fork food, yoga classes, forest walks and tennis: It could be an average day at a luxury health retreat.

In fact, it’s what’s in store for toddlers at some of the UK’s most expensive nurseries, where annual fees can outstrip the average take-home salary. 

Child care in the UK is already pricey, with parents shelling out an average of around £14,000 a year ($17,400) for a full-time place in a nursery. Compared with average take-home household income, the UK has the most expensive child care for 2- and 3-year-olds among the 38-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The average tuition at a private nursery school in New York City is a little more than £12,000. (The most expensive one, Stephen Gaynor School, costs more than $75,000, or almost £61,000.)

High-end nurseries get even more expensive: The best ones cost as much as £30,000 per year. The median full-time salary in the UK is £33,000, or roughly £26,000 a year after taxes. 

“For parents it’s the second-highest cost after mortgage,” says Purnima Tanuku, chief executive officer of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA). 

So if you’re paying more, what do you get in return?

Location, Location, Location

One of the main things that affects the price is location, with nurseries in central London often costing twice the national average because of higher rents and staffing costs.

Tadpoles Nursery School in west London’s Kensington offers yoga, music, acting and singing to its young students. At its Chelsea site, care for four days (from 8:35 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.) and one morning a week—with breaks for Christmas, Easter and summer holidays—runs £24,825 a year.

Access to large outdoor spaces is common in the upper tiers of the nursery market, and at Tadpoles, urban children use it to grow fruit and vegetables, which they later prepare and eat in cooking classes. In the summer they make fruit crumbles with homegrown strawberries and gooseberries; in autumn they use apples and pears.

The students also keep pets—rabbits, tortoises and fish—and have the option of learning tennis, rugby and other sports. “I really believe in growing vegetables, showing them field-to-fork, how animals develop, the importance of insects. All these things are the future for our children,” says Claire Dimpfl, head and owner of Tadpoles. “That’s my USP [unique selling point].”

Outdoor Education

The most extreme example of outdoor learning takes place at forest schools, such as Little Forest Folk, which has seven sites across London. There, children age 2 and up spend a good portion of the day outside, in sunshine or rain.

Students are dropped off at small indoor “bases,” where they can change into raincoats for a day of outdoor activities. Tents hide camping toilets, and there are tarps to shelter those who want to dodge the rain. The reading corner of a more traditional nursery is replicated with books hanging from a line strung between two trees; the lunchroom is a few logs set in a circle. 

“Everything you’d get in a traditional nursery we deliver, all the literacy and numeracy we do outside,” says Jeni Dunning, director of operations at Little Forest Folk. “The only thing that brings us indoors is when there’s a risk to safety, like very high winds or if there’s lightning.”

With tarps and proper clothes, children aren’t bothered by wet weather, says Dunning: “They love it when it rains because there are puddles and mud, and all the minibeasts come out.”

Forest nurseries are not an inexpensive option: The high cost of insurance and staffing bills for trained employees means the price tag can reach £29,081 a year for full-time care. Holiday clubs at the nursery cost around £100 a day.

“Because of the additional risk we have, we’ve got to think about insuring the site all the time. We also keep them quite small, so most [sites] are only for up to 20 children,” Dunning says. “It isn’t cheap to run.”

Then there’s the top end of the market. Knightsbridge School in London prepares its nursery class by offering classes in French, tennis, music and phonics, along with standard playtime and park excursions. While some preschools have 30 kids in a class, Knightsbridge limits its to 12 children.

A Staffing Crisis

Because child care is such a labor-intensive industry, staffing makes up a high percentage of costs. At the same time, the preschool sector is facing an intense staffing crisis. Last year the NDNA warned that nurseries were shutting or reducing services at a rapid rate because they were unable to find enough qualified workers.

The typical nursery worker’s salary starts at about £14,000 a year, according to government figures. Experienced teachers can make £24,000, and managers can make £32,000. That’s still less than the median UK income, with nursery workers often requiring qualifications to reach the upper salary bands.

Nurseries in the market’s top tier usually pay more to attract and keep staff. At the N Family Club chain, nursery workers start at £19,968 in the West Midlands sites and £20,592 in London; managers earn as much as £60,000. The company says it’s in the top 10% for salaries in the industry. 

“We want to make sure they’re rewarded for their work,” says Paige Francis, N Family Club’s operations manager, referring to the company’s employees. “We do 14 job bandings, so it’s very clear how people can progress with us and what pay would be if they hit that. And all the pay information is available online, so it helps them plan their career.”

The company also offers a competitive benefits package that includes the option of working a four-day week, bonuses and a partnership scheme. But that comes at a cost to parents: A full-time place at N Family Club can run as high as £29,835 a year. 

Still, the high fees don’t translate into big profits, Francis says: “It’s a myth that we make loads of money. We invest so much into our team to retain them and keep them happy.” She adds that such costs as food and heating add up and that the chain’s sites are refurbished every year.

Affordable Options

Parents who send their children to local nurseries shouldn’t worry about the bells and whistles, given the UK’s high requirements for the schools, says the NDNA’s Tanuku. “They have to maintain the early years foundation stage framework and will have to operate within very strict legislation,” she says. “All nurseries deliver that high-quality care—the statutory requirements are already good.” 

Yet that doesn’t mean all children will get the same learning opportunities, and not just in terms of foreign-language classes and yoga breathing exercises.

A report from UK education office Ofsted, Best Start in Life, noted that the early years make up a crucial developmental time for kids. While the paper underlined the importance of educational settings for young children, the high average fees—even for local nurseries—make child care unaffordable for millions.

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