Measuring the full cost of the UK’s approach to childcare

Why we need to rethink childcare support even if many parents are currently paying nothing for pre-school childcare.

Small child playing with brightly coloured bricks on the floor in a childcare setting

 

Would subsidising childcare be a useful use of money? The UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world so you’d think the answer would be yes. But a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies last week said that, given many parents pay nothing for pre-school childcare – particularly the poorest, it would probably help the wealthiest the most. Instead it called for targeted funding to help the lowest earners.

The problem is that those parents in work have already found their own ways around the childcare issue – generally a series of sticking plasters – but what about all the people who can’t use grandparents – whose parents live far away or are unwell? What about those without good local networks of friends and extended family to help out? What about those who don’t have partners to share shifts with? What do they do? Are they not symptoms of a failing system?

More targeted support is definitely needed, but so too is a complete review of how childcare is viewed in the UK – based not just on what happens now, but on viewing childcare support as vital to how the economy functions.

Covid showed how vital grandparents are when it comes to parents being able to work. Workingmums.co.uk was inundated with questions about what parents could do in lockdown if they couldn’t access grandparents, including nurses who were single parents who did the night shift. The guidance was very unclear what their options were, if they had any at all.

Many parents don’t pay for childcare in the early years because they don’t go back to work – either they don’t want to or the cost is too high. Others are stuck in part-time, low paid jobs. Others set up on their own to get greater flexibility around whatever free childcare they can find.

What is the long-term cost of all of this for individuals and for the economy? The gender pensions gap tells its own story. Yet it’s hard to measure what ifs with any degree of accuracy. So all people can measure is what people do now.

Childcare costs hold back women at all levels of society, but particularly those who earn the least who are also hit most by the comparatively low levels of maternity pay in this country. That restricts people’s choices and ability to progress to better paid jobs. More targeted support is definitely needed, but so too is a complete review of how childcare is viewed in the UK – based not just on what happens now, but on viewing childcare support as vital to how the economy functions.

 



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