Fixing the childcare system

We need to take a step back from childcare rage and seriously consider how to fix the system rather than adding to its problems.

Nursery worker with child


Childcare has dominated the Budget headlines and the many challenges it faces, after years of neglect, from staffing to chronic underpayment of Government subsidies. At the root of them all – and this goes for health and social care too – is how much we value care and the – mainly – women who do it. That’s not to mention the legion of unpaid carers. That needs a wholesale rethink of the economy rather than tinkering around the edges, but a start would be to fully fund the ‘free’ childcare that we already have as providers have been saying for years; and to invest in the wraparound care that currently exists. Instead the Government seems to be putting wraparound money into new start-ups rather than speaking to the people already doing it about what might help. When you talk to wraparound care providers, the problem is several-fold: staffing, parents’ ability to pay – which varies according to where the setting is – and competition from schools anxious to find new ways to boost their own reduced funding [although they may find that the finances don’t quite stack up as costs continue to rise].

Childcare organisations and campaigners have been raising these issues for years and the political response has come in different iterations over the last two decades as more mums have had to keep working due to cost of living increases, particularly in the last year, and as the economy needs them to keep working. First, there were childcare vouchers, then tax credits and Sure Start, followed by the 15 ‘free’ hours, the 30 hours and tax-free childcare. Every time new schemes, often with different eligibility criteria, are added the system becomes more complicated and more messy.

The current Budget focus on childcare is the result of a number of different factors – a wide variety of campaigners, including dogged work by childcare providers, but also increasing panic in Government circles about economic inactivity levels and labour market shortages as employer organisations demand action. While childcare was an afterthought during Covid in terms of policy, it did put front and centre for employers what was going on as they saw into their employees’ houses and witnessed the struggles they were facing with managing work and childcare or homeschooling. And with more women in the workforce – and more higher up the ranks – childcare costs escalating and childcare generally still falling mainly to women – there are more demands for action and more understanding of why that is needed, at least by some.

While some boards are still full of men whose wives do all the childcare, those dynamics are changing too, with men and women increasingly seeing the need for change – even if – since the voucher scheme went out the window – there is not a lot of work on the ground to do anything concrete about it, except lobby the Government. But what else can they do? Calls for workplace-based creches are often unrealistic. Some employers pay employees’ upfront childcare fees, which is a good start, but more innovative ideas are needed – childcare is a whole society challenge and, if we get it right, everyone wins.

The labour market shortages are also behind the sudden interest by the Government in workers over 50. Before the reports started emerging last year about economic inactivity during Covid, there was little interest in older workers among policymakers and among many employers. Yet long-term sickness numbers have been high for years and the population has been ageing for some time.

Everything in Government seems to operate on a short-term basis and there is little evidence of a longer-term plan or vision that brings everything together, from technology, education and the care infrastructure to labour shortages and demographic changes. Some employers are doing this thinking, but they can’t do it on their own – it requires serious policy input. While a rage-filled and often erratic Twitter seems to dominate policy and while anger certainly has a role to play, what we need is sober, deep, embedded thinking about these huge challenges. It may not sound very exciting or passion-charged, but it’s the grown-up thing to do.

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