Childcare is in crisis and that crisis has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, with poorer areas being worst hit.
A survey out earlier this week from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Childcare and Early Education found nearly half of working parents said they would lose income if their childcare provider closed and over a third said they would not be able to work.
While the survey generated a lot of discussion over the impact of childcare closures, the figures themselves seem surprisingly low in that you would think more parents would not be able to work if their childcare closed – unless they think they can get childcare elsewhere. While some might think they can rely on family, with people retiring later and later and worries about pensions not covering the cost of living longer, is that going to be the case? And if many childcare providers close will there be enough places for all the kids who need them in other childcare provision? The number of childminders has fallen steeply in the last years.
What this past year has shown us is that childcare is absolutely essential if parents are to work effectively and since large numbers of people become parents at some point in their working lives that means childcare is essential full-stop.
The Early Years Alliance and others, including most recently the Institute for Fiscal Studies, have been warning for years of underfunding of ‘free’ childcare places for three and four year olds and of the impact this is having on nurseries. Some are having to promote particular optional activities and extras to cover their costs. The result is that the children whose parents cannot pay may find themselves excluded from these activities and treated effectively as second-class citizens.
Those nurseries which operate in disadvantaged areas have been the hardest hit financially and have been the most likely to close. Some nursery chains have only been able to survive by subsidising the nurseries in poorer areas through the money they get from those in wealthier areas which have not been as affected by parents being in low paid, insecure jobs. The Covid crisis has made this divide much bigger, given white collar workers have, in the main, been able to work from home as normal during the crisis and, when nurseries have been open, have been able to send their children.
For years we have been waiting for the Government to take action, to review its childcare provision, for instance, the low take-up of the complicated tax-free childcare scheme, and yet, apart from the odd tweak during the pandemic, there has been no fundamental change or recognition even of the problem. At a Women and Equalities Committee meeting in November equalities minister Kemi Badenoch declared that nurseries she had spoken to were “very happy” with the support the Government had provided during the pandemic and that the Chancellor was not going to take part in a “tick boxing exercise” to provide support to specific sectors such as childcare.
What will parents do then in the absence of proper action on childcare? There is evidence of some innovation in the sector, with childminder-style businesses looking to expand. But will they be able to operate across the country and address the disadvantage in the system? Will they just target the richer areas? How does that fit with the so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda? The truth is that the market doesn’t have all the answers and childcare is a fundamental need that can only be addressed as part of an integrated policy approach.
*workingmums.co.uk will be putting the spotlight on some of the childcare issues as we emerge from Covid in the next weeks.