Childcare problems are part of a wider policy failure

The care crisis we see now has been years in the making and is the result of a failure to plan ahead.

Nursery worker playing with children


Childcare has featured a lot in this year’s news – particularly since the summer when we know the number of childcare providers closing up shop increased. The energy and cost of living crises have put more pressure on providers as has the increase in staffing budgets due to minimum wage rises. Things are likely to get worse rather than better after the energy cap policy comes to an end in April. Will childcare be considered a special case or will it be treated like other industries as it has been in the past?

We know that Government is looking at childcare – and in the autumn various policies were trailed, the main one being increasing the number of children one childcare worker can look after. Parents worry about the safety implications. Nursery providers say it won’t make much difference to fees. Another proposal was boosting childminder agencies, but there have been very few since the policy came in and, in fact, the number of childminders leaving childcare has accelerated. There are various other suggestions doing the rounds as policymakers look for a cheap fix of the problem.

This week Stella Creasy successfully pushed the Government to make a statement to the effect that childcare is part of basic infrastructure in the case of development plans. Others argue that this was already the case and Creasy was just making political points. However, the move was part of a growing swell of opinion coming from parents’ groups and others that something radical needs to be done. We cannot just go on as we are with fees endlessly rising and wages, for most, effectively falling. Many do find alternative childcare through friends, family, shift work and so forth, but not having stable childcare provision – as well as the educational benefits that properly funded early years care provides – has a big cost in terms of the jobs parents – mainly women because they are still the principal carers in most cases – can do and it can affect whether it is worthwhile working at all for some.

Last week, in addition to the Creasy discussion in Parliament, there were several reports out. An Ofsted report highlighted labour shortages in the industry, a huge problem for providers. Ofsted said that some providers have become over-reliant on apprentices to fill gaps, which has a knock-on effect on the quality of education and safeguarding. The Department for Education’s annual survey of childcare providers found the number of childcare providers fell by 10 per cent between 2018 and 2022 [and by 3 per cent between 2021 and 2022].

In addition, the Government announced that local authorities will receive average funding increases of 3.4% for the three and four year olds’ free childcare entitlements and four per cent for the two year old entitlement over the next year – well below inflation which is currently at 10.7%. So that’s a cut in funding. For years childcare providers have been complaining that the amount Government provides for ‘free’ childcare for 38 weeks of the year does not cover the actual cost. That means providers have to put up their fees elsewhere or charge for extras or run it at a loss.

An earlier Institute for Fiscal Studies report talked of the fact that childcare has seen a big increase in funding in the last decade or more, compared to education. The reason for this is the increase of ‘free’ childcare for three and four year olds and tax-free childcare. Based on that logic and with schools crying out for more funding, like many other parts of the public sector, it’s hard to see the Government investing much more in childcare. Yet the reason for the increase in the last years is growing demand and changing demographics – with more mums in the workplace and more of them working full time as the cost of living has risen. Families can’t afford to live on one wage.

The world changes over time – our population is ageing; the cost of living is rising and more people need to work [and we need them to]. That means things like elder care, healthcare and childcare should take up more of a country’s budget. We’re not in the 1950s now or the 1970s or 1980s. Budgets must reflect reality and governments should be much better able to plan ahead. The ageing population issue has been coming for many decades and has consistently been kicked down the road. So here we are with the care system generally strung out. This is not something that has happened suddenly, due to one particular shock such as Covid. It has been a long time coming and it will take proper, consistent thinking and planning to find solutions.

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