07/03/2014 06:58 GMT | Updated 06/05/2014 06:59 BST

Major Gaps in Childcare Are a Symptom of a System on the Wrong Track

If paying a sum similar to a monthly mortgage payment in childcare costs wasn't enough of a challenge for working parents with young children, finding childcare is itself a major hurdle.

If paying a sum similar to a monthly mortgage payment in childcare costs wasn't enough of a challenge for working parents with young children, finding childcare is itself a major hurdle.

The Family and Childcare Trust's annual childcare costs survey, published this week, shows that half of local authorities don't think they have enough childcare for working parents with children under two, and almost two thirds don't have enough provision for primary school children. These gaps are more acute for specific groups of parents, for example with 28% of local authorities reporting sufficient childcare for parents with disabled children and just 20% for parents who live in rural areas.

Our findings are reinforced by the Department for Education's regular survey of parents and childcare, with nearly one third (30%) of parents saying there are not enough places where they live. Research for the coalition's Childcare Commission, reported in a PQ response by Lord Nash, found that more than half of stay-at-home mothers would prefer to be in paid employment and a quarter of working mothers would increase their hours if they could arrange suitable childcare. Lord Nash went on to state:

These findings are echoed by the Women's Business Council report of July 2013, which indicates that there are 2.4 million women who are not in work but want to work and a further 1.3 million who want to increase their hours.

This report also estimates that if women were represented in the same numbers as men in the workforce, GDP growth would be up to 10% higher by 2030.

These gaps are not simply an inconvenience. Inflexible, poor quality and expensive childcare makes it harder for parents to balance work and family life and means that many parents remain trapped in poverty because they cannot make work pay. Children miss out on the wellbeing benefits of belonging to a working family, and the social and educational benefits of high quality childcare. Skilled workers drop out of the economy, the tax base is reduced and the state faces higher welfare bills.

Childcare providers are regulated for quality by Ofsted but there is no oversight of the number of places available, the hours of provision or indeed a transparent admissions process. This means that parents must navigate an extremely capricious market system. Inevitably, provision is best for those who can pay the highest fees and purchase the most hours of care. For low and middle income parents with limited budgets, the market is less responsive and finding affordable, flexible and high quality provision is a greater challenge. Often parents' work and family choices are dictated by the childcare options available to them rather than their own preferences.

Despite the consistent investment in childcare over the last fifteen years, successive government have been complacent about gaps in provision, tending to conflate the take up of the free childcare offer, which is generally good, with enough childcare for working parents, which generally isn't. The free offer has limitations: it covers less than a third of children in formal childcare and, at 15 hours each week, does not cover even a typical part-time job. The offer does a good job at improving the incomes of parents but cannot compensate for failings elsewhere in the childcare system and is less successful at supporting parents to work. In a recent Department for Work and Pensions survey of parents, childcare and work decisions, 16 per cent of parents reported increasing their working hours when their child became eligible for financial support such as the free offer.

The government and some local authorities have also tended to conflate the presence of unfilled places in nurseries with the absence of gaps in childcare. If places are too expensive, low quality or not available at the times needed, parents cannot use them.

Since the Children Act 1989, local government has had a statutory role in shaping the childcare market, but one that has proved to be largely ineffectual. The Childcare Act 2006 sets out this duty in its most recent form and requires local authorities to provide sufficient childcare for working parents 'as far as practicable'. In practice though, the duty has led to little substantive action and is not effectively enforced.

In the short-term, there are two important steps that the government could take to help parents. First, local authorities must be held to proper account for following the law and providing enough childcare places. Second, the Department for Education should reintroduce meaningful standards for sufficiency assessments, which it recently hastily removed in a rush to eliminate 'red tape'.

But these steps would be a sticking plaster rather than a lasting solution. We need to create a sustainable childcare system that puts children and parents first by offering a reliable, affordable and flexible childcare to those who need it. There are a number of good options available to policy makers to realise this aim, such as simplifying childcare funding streams and linking public investment to equitable access.

As policy makers and political parties look to the next Parliament, they must consider how they will reform the system and gets us out of this mess.