THE BLOG

Incoherent, Expensive and Unfair: How Do We Fix the UK's Childcare System?

20/07/2015 17:45 BST | Updated 20/07/2016 10:59 BST

The UK's childcare system is broken.

In Scotland, where I lead a major children's charity, multiple factors mean the current settlement penalises many families.

The first issue is, simply, cost. The Family and Childcare Trust has reported that the cost of a part-time nursery place for a child under two increased by a whopping 33% over the past five years.

In their annual survey, published in February, the charity found these places now averaged £115.45 a week throughout the UK. That's a rise of 5.1% in a single year.

No wonder thousands of families, many about to endure the loss of vital tax credits as punishment for the audacity of being in low-paid work and having more than two children, are effectively barred from accessing childcare. Their ambitions for better jobs or further education and training fall by the wayside.

There is also a profound crisis of availability. Many parents find it impossible to access childcare provision that fulfils the needs of their child and complements work or study.

Overall, the system designed to offer financial support, with its mix of direct funding of services and tax and benefits, is incoherent and unfair.

But recent developments persuade me that these flaws can be corrected. Transformation of childcare is in the sights of progressive politicians as well as civic society.

Last month saw the publication of two major reports on the topic.

The Commission for Childcare Reform, which I established last spring, made calls for radical change.

Childcare in Scotland should be extended to 50 hours per week through the year, it said, with priority given to smoothing cost burdens for all families. Families who live in or near poverty should be properly supported.

A child account should be established for each child. Through this all money used to pay for, or subsidise, childcare could be channelled to providers.

And the Scottish Government, working with the UK Government, local authorities and providers, should commission a complete review of all aspects of the funding of childcare.

The Commission's calls captured media attention in Scotland and were debated at First Minister's Questions in Holyrood.

Its report complemented Professor Iram Siraj's review of the childcare workforce, which called for a new degree in early years education and urged compulsory early years training for primary heads.

These recommendations arrive at a time when childcare's political profile has never been higher. It is now a genuine priority for all of Scotland's political parties, while in England, access to free childcare for three-and-four-year-olds is to increase to 30 hours a week.

These moves are encouraging, but politicians need to stop using the issue for partisan point-scoring. Childcare is about real lives and real life chances being supported or thwarted, not parties bidding against each other to win traction with voters.

I believe the only route to transforming childcare is for the UK and Scottish Governments to listen to the arguments of parents, employers and businesses, then engage in genuine collaboration on policy and legislation.

That may sound difficult or idealistic. But there are hundreds of examples of legislation that has been shaped by individuals or pressure groups within civic society, coming up with the right ideas and persuading politicians to act.

The Childcare Alliance, a network of partners I chair, will be holding Holyrood and Westminster to account on this issue in the coming months through debate, campaigning and pressure.

We expect to see results - and we believe that though childcare in the UK is broken in 2015, we can give the UK and Scottish Governments the answers that will fix it for future generations of children.

Jackie Brock is Chief Executive of Scottish children's charity, Children in Scotland.