Amid reports that the Government may be considering action on childcare, how realistic are the options?
At the end of last week it was reported that the Department for Education has put forward various proposals on how to address childcare costs in England. They include extending the ‘free’ childcare offer, currently 30 hours a week during term time [or lower weekly hours spread across the year] for three and four year olds, to children who are nine months old and onwards. This is said to cost billions.
Other options reportedly proposed include offer fewer than 30 hours a week to two year olds, offering 10 free hours to disadvantaged one year olds [currently disadvantaged two years old can access free childcare, but there are issues with uptake] and adjusting the adult to child ratios.
The report comes amid much discussion about childcare costs and after Labour said it would guarantee childcare from the age of nine months to 11 years, although its plans are not yet fully costed. The Government is also facing pressure from its bank benchers, including the Liz Truss faction. So there is a lot of politics involved in the DfE proposal given childcare is likely to be a key battleground in the next general election.
It also comes after the CBI put childcare front and centre in its proposals for economic recovery. It is calling for an £8.9bn annual package to fund a raft of proposals including the roll-out of existing provision for three and four year olds to all one and two year olds. It says that the British economy is losing billions because of the labour shortage and that not getting parents back to work, particularly full-time work, is having a detrimental impact.
But how likely is it that the Government would go with the most radical proposal and what impact would the other – cheaper – proposals have? For childcare providers a major problem with expanding the existing ‘free’ childcare programme is that it is not currently covering the costs of a place. The fear is that extension at the same inadequate rates could push providers over the edge. Many are trying to recoup the money they have to pay to cover the full cost of places by charging higher fees for younger children and for ‘extras’. Neil Leitch of The Early Years Alliance said, simply: “Put simply, if the government extends the 30-hour offer to parents of one- and two-year-olds without first ensuring that funding actually covers the cost of delivering places, the entire early years sector will collapse. Promising more ‘free childcare’ without adequately funding it was exactly what got us into the current crisis. It is critical that ministers don’t make the same mistake again.”
Would it not be better to fully fund the current offer for three and four year olds, although, politically, this might not be as much of a vote winner with parents?
Offering a more limited amount of hours to two year olds presents similar problems and extending the free hours offer to disadvantaged one year olds might stop mums taking a career break, but the evidence on take-up of the current 15 hours offer for two year olds shows that more needs to be done to get more parents to consider it. Recent research estimates that disadvantaged two year olds could be missing out on as many as ‘45 million hours of lost learning’ per year.
The ratio reduction, much championed by Liz Truss, is controversial and has little support from childcare providers. who say it won’t have much impact on the fees they charge, or parents who are worried about the safety implications.
So what can be done? To begin with, it is important for the Government to fully acknowledge the problems underfunding its ‘free’ offer have caused – both to providers and to parents of younger children who are having to pay extra. This is too serious an issue to play party politics with. Doing so only suggests that the Government still doesn’t get it and hasn’t joined the dots to understand how central care is to economic wellbeing.
*workingmums.co.uk editor Mandy Garner has contributed to a report – out today – by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership on the issue of childcare in the UK. Essays on Equality can be downloaded here.