Politics

Childcare in Britain: a subject finally ‘worthy of political debate’

Ask any parent of young children about the state of British childcare, and they’ll tell you, said Lucy Pasha-Robinson in The Guardian: “the system is woefully unfit for purpose”.

British parents pay the third-highest childcare costs in the world, according to the OECD. Government funding is provided for three- and four-year-olds (not for younger children), but it rarely covers the full cost of the care, so parents have to top up.

And many can’t even get a nursery place. Owing to long-term recruitment problems, exacerbated by Brexit and Covid, nurseries are closing at an alarming rate. The number of childcare providers fell by 4,000 in England in the year to March: year-long waiting lists are standard. This means that today, many parents simply cannot “afford to work”.

In the past year, the number of women not working in order to look after family has risen by about 5% – the first sustained increase in at least 30 years. Women are being forced back into the home. “We are rolling back the clock on equality.”

Against this backdrop, childcare seems finally to have become “a subject worthy of political debate”, said Rosie Kinchen in The Sunday Times. At its conference, the Labour Party pledged to introduce free breakfasts in every primary school. The Conservatives’ plans are expected soon: Liz Truss listed “affordable childcare” as a priority in her own conference speech.

‘Mounting concern’ about Truss’s policies

But there is “mounting concern” about the policies she will adopt. The fact is that much of “the mess that exists today” dates back to Truss’s time as education minister a decade ago, when she seemed “obsessed” with deregulating childcare, against the wishes of nurseries and parents.

She is said to be considering similar policies this time round, such as raising the minimum ratio of carers to children for two-year-olds, from 1:4 to 1:5, so as to lower staff costs; and converting the nursery subsidy for three- and four-year-olds into a voucher that parents can use as they like (whether to pay for a nursery, or to give to friends or family in informal arrangements). 

Other European countries are leading the way

What Britain needs is a “system of universal free childcare for all children under the age of five”, along with flexible care before and after school for older children, said The Observer. This exists in many European countries, and the benefits – to children, mothers, families, the economy – are well attested. So it’s dismaying that Truss seems to be moving “in the opposite direction”.

There is “a big prize to be had” in reforming childcare, said The Sunday Times. But “tackling it will not be cheap”, and at present neither party has offered more than a sketch. “This must be the beginning of real solutions.”

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