Why childcare is a vital element of ‘building back better’

A recent report adds more evidence that childcare providers are really struggling and that, without support, parents could find it harder to secure subsidised places in the near future.



It’s been a year of complete turbulence and it ends with yet another warning about childcare. A report this week from Coram Family and Childcare highlights the parlous state of childcare providers in the wake of the Government decision to revert to actual numbers in nurseries when it comes to childcare subsidies.

Many childcare providers have seen a fall in rolls since the pandemic with parents being furloughed or having their hours temporarily reduced or just plain anxious about sending their children in, particularly now when this new strain of the virus is circulating.

The Government says childcare providers can, like other small businesses, access other business grants and the furlough scheme, but, of course, they can only access a proportion of the furlough scheme in relation to the amount of subsidised places they fund. We had the debacle over the summer with furlough being encouraged and then nurseries being told at the 11th hour that it was not that straightforward.

The upshot of all of this is that childcare providers are likely to restrict subsidised places, according to the Coram Family and Childcare research. That is very bad news for parents. I well recall counting the hours until the subsidised childcare was available when only son reached three and I could afford to put him into nursery for longer.

The ramifications are enormous. Many parents won’t be able to afford to work or will have to work reduced hours. There are alternatives. Tax-free childcare is available, but it is not being fully used because it is expensive and requires upfront payments which many can’t afford. There are, of course, tax credits for those on the lowest pay, but again it can be complicated and cases have had to be taken to court to address injustices in the system.

The other issue is the impact on the number of places and where those places might be available. If childcare providers close down, there will be fewer places and the worst hit areas are likely to be the most disadvantaged. This would come after years of closures of Sure Start centres.

The ability to work and to progress offers a clear route out of poverty, but without proper childcare support that route could be closed off for some.

Since the beginning of the pandemic many of us have been making the point again and again that childcare is a core part of the economic infrastructure of a country. We have watched for months childcare providers crying out for support with little to no adequate response from Government. Indeed equalities minister Kemi Badenoch told the Women and Equalities Committee that nurseries she had spoken to were “very happy” with the support the Government had provided during the pandemic. Her fellow equalities minister Liz Truss, who argued that publishing equality impact assessments would have “a chilling effect”, gave a speech last week – no doubt directed at the so-called red wall constituencies – saying the Government would be recalibrating its equalities strategy to focus on socio-economic inequality, saying there had been too narrow a focus on gender, race and other issues as if all these issues are not inter-related.

The truth is that the Government was slow to recognise the importance of childcare during the first lockdown. Now we do at least have childcare bubbles and furlough for childcare reasons. However, it is down to individual employers to agree this and, despite great practice by many to support parents, some haven’t been doing that. Will the coming shortage of childcare places be left down to employers to sort too, amid all the other problems they face and amid the Government’s apparent inability to treat childcare as different to other small businesses?

It’s all very well donning a hi-vis jacket and hard hat and going on about rebuilding and building back better, but you have to get the infrastructure right first.

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