OPINION
08/09/2020 06:00 BST | Updated 08/09/2020 14:37 BST

Back-To-School Hasn't Solved The Giant Women-Shaped Hole In Our Childcare System

Expensive and patchy childcare options should not be accepted as inevitable, writes policy and research consultant Dr Dalia Ben-Galim.

School’s back. And breathe... but only if you have a school-age child, some wraparound care, and a flexible employer.

For every other working parent, the struggle and juggle remains.

Like everything during this pandemic, each step into and out of lockdown has both amplified existing inequalities and uncovered new inequalities. With schools returning for all pupils, and debates raging on remote working and office boundaries; access to childcare has once again been thrust into the spotlight. 

Last week, the TUC highlighted that two in five working mothers with children under 10 did not have access to the childcare they needed despite schools and nurseries reopening.

For some, this is because breakfast and after school clubs now need parents to commit to regular slots, whereas pre-Covid there may have been more flexibility.

For others, the network of family and friends they relied on may be under pressure to balance their own work with caring commitments; and some grandparents may feel like there is an increased risk with infection rates on the rise.

Since March, research on parenting during a pandemic has consistently shown mothers are shouldering a majority of the childcare and home-schooling responsibilities, with many also on the front line of care and at risk of redundancy.

This will almost certainly remain the case especially as the government’s furlough scheme comes to an end in October and local lockdowns loom. It is unlikely that new research will show anything other than a growing
gender gap for working mothers exacerbated by the lack of childcare.

Hopeful that parents will simply return to their previous working habits and patterns, the government still fails to recognise that childcare is a vital part of society’s social infrastructure. New research by the IFS on the childcare market shows a sector in financial trouble, with little certainty of parent demand bouncing back. The government’s furlough scheme and the decision to continue to fund childcare places has mitigated against more severe losses for some providers, but the sector is struggling.

Much of this is not new. The childcare market is volatile and unstable. Funding is a patchy and complex combination of parental fees, government funding of places and tax relief. There are persistent challenges of accessibility and affordability at the best of times.

On the face of it, options to support the sector are like other sectors – either reduce costs through redundancies or rent, or increase prices in this case for parents.

But childcare is not like other sectors. Cutting costs by reducing staff generally equates to a loss of staff with higher levels of qualifications. The risk is to children’s educational and social well-being and progress, a risk we simply cannot afford. And increasing costs would lock many more mothers – especially those who are low paid – out of work. According to the international evidence, “affordable” childcare is 10% to 15% of take-home pay.

In the UK, parents are paying more like 30%, and for single parents this can often rise to 50%. The cost of childcare for children under three continues to rise faster than inflation – the average cost for a part-time nursery place for a two-year old is £131 a week, adding up to £6,800 a year.

For the growing number of Universal Credit claimants, having to pay childcare costs upfront and then be reimbursed by the Job Centre was already creating administrative and practical barriers to mothers (re-)entering work. Parents need to have the cash available – often before receiving their first pay cheque – and there have been numerous accounts of provider receipts not being suitable for reimbursement.

And so, policies need to be different on funding, provision and flexibility. There is merit in revisiting previous ideas – for example, to move away from tax relief that tends to be regressive and towards a system that funds high-quality places instead. This “supply side” model works in other countries to produce high-quality affordable childcare provision.

But change won’t be sustainable if it is only focused on central government funding. Like every sector, there is also an opportunity for new ideas to flourish. Local authorities and providers, together with parents, are key to carving out new solutions. It is tricky with “meantime” solutions needing to be developed alongside more sustainable change.

Childcare needs a fine balance between continuity and quality for children with affordability and accessibility for parents. Could a different funding and business model provide opportunities for parents to book additional hours once they receive their rota? A pay-as-you-go or subscription model? The ability to access weekend provision in their preferred high-quality nursery or childminder?

In addition to a core universal offer, could this better match supply and demand, opening up employment opportunities for mothers, and moving to higher occupancy levels for providers? And for children – stability and continuity of education and care?

Like many of the responses during the pandemic, this is complex.

But high childcare costs, patchy provision and a volatile sector are not inevitable – they never have been. They have always been a political choice.

Dr Dalia Ben-Galim is a policy and research consultant.

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