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The British State Nursery System and Why It Doesn't Work For Working Parents

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When I first moved to Britain, a fellow American expatriate had told me that state nurseries give children free childcare after the age of three. I was excited to call the local nursery and request this state benefit we were entitled to, given the higher taxes we were paying. But when I called the daycare director, she told me that they only had room for a morning session, giving me two and a half hours of childcare per day.

What kind of work was I going to get done in that time? Plus, it would take me 15 minutes to take my child there. And if I literally ran back and forth to my computer, I might have an hour and a half to get any work done.

Even if I wanted to pay for a full-time place, which really meant till 4 pm, there was no space available at the local nursery.The state school nursery director herself suggested private school nurseries. And I found the private school facilities were amazing with kind teachers and low staff-to-child ratio.

They also offered flexibility to accommodate a journalist mom's schedule. If I had to work on an unscheduled afternoon or a day, I could do that. At a state nursery, there was no option of calling at the last minute, while I was on assignment an hour away, begging for my child to stay in a safe environment until my job was done.

Suddenly, I've become a private school parent because I'm a mom who wants to work. With the hour and a half a parent gets to themselves from a state school nursery, I realized that those parents don't work.

In that time, they buy groceries, tidy homes, do laundry and iron. Ironing is like a recreational habit here. I had never heard about the idea of ironing socks, underwear and linen until I got to Britain.

Once my eldest daughter started the private school system here, it was hard to pull her out when she got to elementary-school age and she could attend a state school for free. We loved the confidence and the enthusiasm she showed for academics.

But now the second child is three years old and there's a dilemma. She's had to go to another private nursery since she was an infant so I could work. However, she's now of the age where we embark on the state school route or the private school route. I had heard raves about a state school nursery that was close to my daughter's private school and stayed open till 6 p.m. It was a warm environment, though it was more crowded. The director said there might be space in the following school year but there was no guarantee.

I started speaking to other moms and it seemed like everyone was trying for that same nursery. A mom who was due back at work in just four months hadn't heard if their child was going to get a place in that state nursery, even when she had other children in the elementary school attached to the nursery. Another mom told me she knew her kids would get a place because they were adopted. One mom told me that I should write letters describing my desperation and impending mental breakdown if I didn't get a full-time place in the state nursery.

Getting into a decent state school nursery started sounding like a game of strategy. I either had to give up work for a guaranteed part-time place or I had to be one step away from the loony bin.

So now my three-year-old has started at the same private school that my older one attends. I haven't rescinded my application from the state nursery but I don't hold up much hope of going into the state school system without either becoming a nonworking parent or psychotic.

We will eventually get some funds back from the government because we're giving up a place at a state school nursery and forced into private school. In our U.K. tax filing, there will be no deduction for childcare expenses while our U.S. taxes will give us credit.

Perhaps free nursery care for the nonworking parent should be eliminated so the working parent can get the childcare they need. Who knows, it might be an incentive to get more people to be productive and help lift Britain out of its recession. Is free childcare for nonworking parents a useful state benefit? By encouraging this sense of entitlement, how will Britain transform from a welfare society?