A Bold Approach to Childcare

It’s been estimated that of the people arrested during the recent riots, as many as 30% are under the age of 18.

Not surprisingly then,  there has been a lot of talk recently about good/bad parenting and it seems everyone, no matter what their political persuasion, agrees how important early intervention in childcare is.

Labour can be proud of its record on helping families when it was in power. Its ground-breaking early education and nursery care policies and in particular the Sure Start early intervention programme, could quite rightly claim to be some of Labour’s greatest achievements in government.

Even the present Prime Minister himself  thinks Labour had got it right. In his speech to the Tory conference before the last election, David Cameron said this;

But it’s not just about money. It’s also about emotional support, particularly in those fraught early years before children go to school. Labour understood this and we should acknowledge that. That’s why Sure Start will stay, and we’ll improve it.

So why then did the Tory-led government decide to remove the ring-fence around funding for the Sure Start programme? Did they think the best way to improve the programme was to cut it? If so, the government is obviously an advocate of the ‘we-had-to-destroy-the-town-in-order-to-save-it’ school of logic.

A nationwide survey of Sure Start children’s centre managers, carried out by 4Children and Daycare Trust, found that as many as 250 Sure Start children’s centres are at risk of closing, while thousands are cutting back services and issuing redundancy risk notices.

Other centres are cutting back the services they offer to families and  issuing redundancy notices to staff. As many as 86% of Children’s Centres will have a substantially decreased budget.

According to a shocking report by the Child Poverty Action Group (1), the UK comes 24th out of 29 European countries when ranked according to child well-being and poverty. This puts us below countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Estonia;

Source – Child Poverty Action Group (1)

Recent cuts to benefits and childcare programmes by the present Conservative-led government mean this situation is likely to get worse. It has been estimated that cuts to child benefits in the last budget by the coalition government will affect as many as 1.5 million families and will lead to more babies being born into, and maintained in poverty (2).

What are the problems?

Contrary to right-wing propaganda, the problem is not ‘benefit scroungers’.  58% of children in poverty are in working families, rather than in families who are dependent on benefits (3). The problem is low-wages, which particularly affects working parents. In the UK, there are a growing number of children whose parents are working but are still in poverty.

Despite the previous Labour government’s best efforts, 33% of parents’ income is still being spent on childcare, the highest in the developed world (4);

Source- OECD (4)

Resolving the problem of pre-school childcare provision will go a long way to reducing child poverty in the UK.

Even before the cuts, there is plenty of evidence that the system was failing the lowest income parents. These are the parents most likely to work ‘atypical hours’ such as shift work, evenings and weekend work.
According to the Daycare Trust, a majority of working parents sometimes or always work at times outside the current times of childcare provision on offer (5);

Source: Daycare Trust (5)
Many nursery schools often offer only two daily sessions – often either 9.30am to noon or 13.00 to 15.30 each day – not much use to anyone who works. Unfortunately, the kinds of jobs with atypical hours are more likely to be accessed by low-income parents, the very parents the system should be helping the most.
This could be why as many as 24% of disadvantaged families with 3 year-olds do not take up provision of childcare, even if they are entitled to it for free (6).
This problem is also exacerbated by the fact that many benefits such as working tax credits are unclaimed because many parents do not understand the system or do not know about it. The system is bureaucratic and complicated. Again, the parents most likely to be missing out are the ones on the lowest incomes, the very parents the system is supposed to be helping.
When mothers from families experiencing the highest level of disadvantage asked whether they would prefer to go out to work if they could arrange good quality childcare which was convenient, reliable and affordable, just under two-thirds agreed or agreed strongly, compared with just over a third of mothers from families with no disadvantage. Only 26% of mothers in the most disadvantaged families disagreed or disagreed strongly with the statement that they would prefer to go out to work (7).

Public or Private?

Another problem is the rise of corporate childcare provision and its role in the rising costs of childcare. Private, for profit childcare providers rose 7-fold under Labour’s period in office. This has significantly increased the cost of childcare provision to government and local authorities but with a questionable corresponding rise in the quality of provision. In 1997 the corporate share was negligible. Now it is the largest single sector of provision (8);

Under the policies of the present Tory-led government, this is likely to increase even further with the accompanying increase in costs making childcare a luxury out of the reach of many low-income working parents.

According to the Daycare Trust (11), the average yearly expenditure for 25 hours a week nursery care is £5,028 for parents in England, £5,178 for parents in Scotland and £4,723 in Wales.
In London, the average cost for 25 hours nursery care is £6,164 per year. The most expensive nursery was £14,300 per year for 25 hours a week care.

What can be done to meet the challenges?

Stop government cuts to child benefit, childcare and youth programmes which are part of an all-out attack on family and parenting and which can only have a devastating affect on the future of society as a whole.

We should not be afraid to argue for policies which allow women in particular to have children and continue working. Low birth rates in the UK and rising life expectancy mean we are heading for a pension crisis. Encouraging parents, especially women, to work and also to have more children is a necessity if we are to have any hope of mitigating the worst effects of the crisis.

In a cost-benefit report on universal childcare in 2003, PricewaterhouseCoopers stated (9);

Increased employment of women is especially important, not only to support the future welfare state’s finances as the population ages, but also as a remedy for child poverty.

It is also an aid to reducing the gender pay gap and allowing more women to provide for their own old age (so contributing to the solution to current concerns about a possible future pensions crisis).

Flexible and affordable childcare will help to reduce unemployment. 60% of unemployed mothers say unavailability of affordable childcare is the reason they are not working. 47% say they cannot find childcare which covers the times they need to work (5).

Flexible and affordable childcare will help to reduce unemployment. 60% of unemployed mothers say unavailability of affordable childcare is the reason they are not working. 47% say they cannot find childcare which covers the times they need to work (5).
It should also be pointed out that good quality childcare in the home isn’t free either. To families, it costs the wages of a full time person who would be in work if they were not at home caring for the child as well as the educational toys, books and other things which many parents would not be able to afford. There is a cost to the economy too, from lost taxes and wages which could be spent elsewhere in the economy.

Of course, if free pre-school childcare were only a tool to reduce poverty, mitigate anti-social behaviour or as a means to mitigate the pension crisis, it would be unwise if it were not good for the children themselves. Fortunately, all the evidence points otherwise. A major longitudinal study by The Department for Education and Skills (10) identified significant positive effects of early childhood education on children’s development. It shows that better quality, longer duration and more effective pre-school care could
have positive lasting educational and developmental effects (Sammons et. al., 2004)


1) Funds to Child Benefits, Childcare and Youth Programmes and in particular Children’s Centres should be properly ring-fenced from further cuts. In fact funding should be increased. But how can we afford it in these times of financial crisis? I hear the cry. Well the money is there, if we are willing to get it.  In 2010 local authorities in England spent over £4 billion on provision for under fives in one year. In the UK, bank bonuses were estimated to be as much as 7 billion in 2010 alone (13) . If the extra costs were paid for with a ROBIN HOOD TAX (http://robinhoodtax.org/), a tax on bank profits which would be used to directly fund anti-child poverty schemes in the UK, including childcare provision, then there would be no budget increases at all.  It’s just a matter of priorities.

2) Pre-school childcare provision should be flexible enough to enable parents who work irregular hours, weekends, evenings etc to use it. Longer opening hours are needed (minimum 7.00am to 7.00pm) and in certain areas, centres offering a 24-hour childcare service should be considered, if there is the demand from working parents.

3) Free pre-school childcare provision needs to be full-time. The present 15 hours isn’t
enough, a minimum of 25 hours a week needs to be offered and as much as 50 hours could be provided if there was the demand. The provision should also be offered all year round, rising from the present provision of 38 weeks a year.

4) Free pre-school childcare provision should continue to be extended to all 2-year olds.

5) Free pre-school childcare provision should be increased in the public sector, reducing
reliance on the private sector, which will decrease costs and government subsidies to for-profit private companies.

6) Bureaucracy should be simplified. Fewer tax credits forms, more ‘walk-in-and-use’
services, including drop-in crèche facilities which will result in a greater take-up of the
services by low-income parents. Parents also need to be given more and better information about local childcare services that are being provided.


(1) Child Poverty Action Group – ‘Child Wellbeing and Child Poverty -where the UK stands in the European table’

Click to access ChildWellbeingandChildPoverty.pdf

(2) Family Action – ‘Born Broke – the impact of welfare measures announced by the Government on parents with new children.’

Click to access parents%20with%20new%20children.pdf

(3) Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the New Policy Institute – ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2010’ – Anushree Parekh, Tom MacInnes and Peter Kenway


(4) OECD – Social Policy Division – Directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs
– ‘PF3.4: Childcare Support’

Click to access 42004407.pdf

(5) Daycare Trust – ‘Open all hours? – flexible childcare in the 24/7 era’ – Rosanna Singler

Click to access atypical_hours_report_final_march_11.pdf

(6) DoE – ‘Towards Universal Early Years Provision: analysis of take-up by disadvantaged


(7) Dept for Children, Schools & Families – ‘Families Experiencing Multiple Disadvantage
– Their Use of and Views on Childcare Provision’ – Svetlana Speight, Ruth Smith and Eva Lloyd with Cathy Coshall – National Centre for Social Research


(8) Penn Helen – University of East London – ‘Childcare Market Management: how the United Kingdom Government has reshaped its role in developing early childhood education and care.’

Click to access CIEC22007.pdf

(9) PriceWaterhouseCoopers – 2003 – ‘Universal Childcare Provision in the UK –
towards a cost-benefit analysis.’

Click to access PwC_UCC_Report-Aug_03.pdf

(10) Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Final Report – A Longitudinal Study Funded by the DfES 1997-2004


(11) Daycare Trust – Annual Childcare Costs Survey 2010


(12) DoE – ‘Provision for Children Under Five Years of Age in England: January 2008’


(13) Centre for Economics and Business Research.

Click to access London-and-the-City-Prospects-Press-Release-5-October-2010-City-Bonuses.pdf

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