Should we give up on universal childcare?

Labour is reported to be focusing on means-testing for childcare rather than universal free childcare. What are the implications?

Child playing with blocks at nursery


Labour is reported to have ruled out universal free childcare for children over nine months. That will come as a disappointment to many campaigners. Yet it’s quite a leap to go from one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world to a free system, particularly when there are so many other parts of our basic infrastructure that are competing urgently for money these days. Childcare is one part of that infrastructure, but so too are health, social care, housing and all the basic services that we need to function, from garbage disposal to transport. The frontline services that we clapped every night during the pandemic.

Labour is reported to be looking at a means-tested scheme aimed at getting help to those most in need, with the most disadvantaged areas more likely to suffer closures.

The devil will be in the detail – where will the support begin to taper away and how fast? Childcare campaigners will, of course, continue to call for universal free childcare and for childcare to be put on a level playing field with school education, particularly given those first years in life play such an important role in later life chances with research showing that those who start behind tend to remain behind. The Women’s Budget Group urged Labour to undertake an independent review of the current system before confirming their plans and says its modelling for universal free childcare would have an initial investment cost of 0.7% of GDP, but that 61% of that would be recouped through positive impacts on the wider economy.

A universal childcare system would also do away with the very complicated support system we now have, with so many different strands to it, from tax credits/Universal Credit to tax-free childcare and ‘free’ childcare for three and four year olds and some two year olds [soon to be extended, although we await news of whether this will be fully funded or will end up leading to more childcare closures].

It is to be hoped that however Labour funds means-testing that it does not further complicate the picture and make things more difficult for childcare providers.

The Early Years Alliance has already put out a statement which is what can only be termed realist. It says that “the current approach of making grand promises of more and more free childcare without fully considering the funding needed to make them viable – something that parties from across the political spectrum have been guilty of – simply isn’t working”. While it supports the principle of universal free childcare, it says that it has always argued that, if it is not possible, investment should be targeted at those in most need.

One of the crucial questions for childcare providers is, of course, whether any subsidised places will be fully funded so they are not out of pocket.  For years this has not been the case and many have struggled to survive or have gone under. There’s clearly no point in having free childcare if there is no childcare to be had. The Early Years Alliance says: “Ultimately, whoever is in government after the next election, what the early years needs is a clear and comprehensive strategy, underpinned by adequate investment and with the needs of the child at its centre. The sector is unlikely to survive anything less.” This is where we are. The rest is just politics.

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