The childcare problems in Labour’s in-tray

Childcare is one of the big issues facing the new Government and the next months are likely to see an escalation of the problems in the sector.

illustration showing mother and child walking home from school


Now that the election dust has settled a bit the work begins and the pressures, already high, will mount over the next months. One area where there is an urgent need for action is early years as the September deadline looms for the next phase of the extended free childcare roll-out. A large percentage of nurseries have been saying for months that they don’t have the places or the staff.

A recent report from Coram Family and Childcare found nearly six in 10 councils in England are not confident or are unsure whether they will have sufficient places to cope with the demand of the roll-out. It doesn’t finish in September either. The target is to offer all children of eligible working parents who are nine months old and up 30 hours of free childcare in term time by next autumn.

Labour has pledged to increase capacity by opening more nursery classes in schools. That has the added benefit of raising the status of nursery staff to a comparable level with teachers, something they have long striven for and which has been a factor in retention. Nursery staff, for instance, were reported to be very demoralised during Covid by not getting the same treatment and support as schools.

But even with that extra capacity [providing staff can be recruited], the bulk of places will still be among the private and voluntary sector and many parents will prefer those settings for their children rather than busy schools. So more needs to be done to support them and to make what is a highly responsible job more attractive – or to increase the UK’s talent pool through bringing in extra capacity from abroad, even if only in the short term. Recruitment is, of course, a massive issue across the entire care sector and, according to the CBI, there will soon be more people retiring than coming into the labour force each year. In such a scenario, the UK economy needs to retain women in the workforce, but in order to do so it needs to ensure there is affordable, quality childcare available.

Look at South Korea – it has a huge problem with low birthrates because of the pressures facing working parents. Seoul’s Metropolitan Government has recently announced that it will provide incentives to small and midsize companies that support employee childbirth and childcare. The city government will implement a point system where companies can accumulate points by providing support. These points can be converted into benefits such as internship support to fill in for employees on parental leave. The mayor, Oh Se-hoon, said of the scheme: “Achieving a work-life balance and creating an environment supportive toward childbirth and childcare in small- and medium-sized enterprises, where the majority of young people work, are key to overcoming low birthrates.”

Several of Korea’s banks are also implementing optional so-called “parental resignation” programmes in an attempt to address the country’s low birth rate.  The parental resignation system can be used in addition to the existing two years of childcare leave, extending the total period of parental hiatus to a maximum of five years. 

Wraparound care

Labour has also promised to put free breakfast clubs in all primary schools in England. The Institute for Fiscal Studies agrees that this will be good for kids who are arriving at school with no breakfast. A good nutritional start to the day will help them to learn. But it is not so sure about the benefits for working parents. But, ask any parent who faces a long commute to work, and they will tell you that having a free breakfast club will definitely be a significant help. The point the IFS is making, however, is that after school clubs and holiday childcare are potentially much more effective in terms of helping parents to work and work longer hours. The report cites figures showing that, while more than one in four families with children aged 0–14 report wanting greater access to after-school clubs or leisure activities, and one in five cite challenges with childcare availability during school holidays, one in 12 would like to access more breakfast club provision.

The previous Government had stated that primary schoolchildren in England should be able to access wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm by 2026. The first tranche of funding to this aim was announced late last year. But, once again, achieving this goal is not just about additional funding. One of the key challenges is parents’ ability to pay for the care provided. Creative thinking is needed and parents need to be included in the mix.

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