Childcare: still waiting for action

Another week, more childcare headlines and, while fees continue to rise, action seems to be moving further away…

reviews of policy following the general election result.


The start of the week saw the Telegraph reporting that the Government has decided to shelve proposals to relax childcare ratios, meaning a childcare worker would be able to look after more children. It was front page headlines so you would think that their sources are good, although there’s always politicking going on with any story and some factions of the Tory party no doubt see childcare as a way to cause more trouble for the new Government. On Wednesday Rishi Sunak hid behind the consultation on childcare, which closed on 16th September and which the Government has still officially to respond to.

If the ratios policy has been shelved as a result that could be good news on the one hand as parents were worried about the safety implications and the vast majority of childcare providers said it wouldn’t make much difference to rising fees since they are already running at such a deficit, in large part due to underfunding of the ‘free’ 38 hours of childcare for three and four year olds [and the free childcare for disadvantaged two year olds].

However, the Telegraph reported that other plans may be shelved too, such as expanding free childcare [although there were worries from providers that this could make matters worse if it was not properly funded], and that childcare would now be a lower priority for Government. That is not going to go down well with parents – or with some Tory MPs who have backed calls for it to be considered basic economic infrastructure.

During Covid childcare seemed to be a fairly low priority already with confusing guidance and providers not accorded the same status as other forms of education. It was only in the last year that government ministers and Conservative MPs started promoting the ratios idea and the childcare review in answer to mounting concerns from parents about the cost of living, increases in parents dropping out of the workforce to look after family and labour shortages. The ratios idea was reheated from back in the early 2010s when Liz Truss was education minister and when the idea was kicked into the long grass after parents and providers campaigned against it.

Indeed most of the ideas her brief government came up with to boost childcare on the cheap dated back to that period, including childminder agencies. It would be good to see some new thinking, but at least she put childcare on the agenda. Some may argue that the urgency of the health and social care emergency facing the country means issues like childcare have to be downgraded, but childcare is a problem that faces all working parents, whether they work in engineering, teaching or health and social care. Mounting childcare fees affect many parents of young children and in a cost of living squeeze it will increasingly affect what hours they can work or whether they can work at all. It’s not a nice to have add-on. Care is central. Care should have been a central feature of the post-Covid recovery.

Without proper healthcare, people drop out of work or work less or work less productively. Without proper guaranteed childcare, people have to find a patchwork of friends and relatives to cover which can fall through for all manner of reasons, such as if a grandparent or aunt or friend gets ill or has healthcare issues. It’s a rickety foundation on which to build a recovery. Those who do the bulk of the care in this country have known this for a long time. It’s time politicians realised it too.

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