26/02/2016 05:18 GMT | Updated 25/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Childcare at a Critical Crossroads

Childcare in this country has reached a critical crossroads. Will we head in the right direction or are we about to take a seriously wrong turning? With the government planning some major changes in childcare provision and funding, it's time to take stock.

The latest annual childcare costs survey just published by the Family and Childcare Trust has some interesting findings and conclusions.

While childcare costs are not rocketing as fast as over the last decade or more, the survey reveals that many parents are finding it increasingly difficult to get the free 15 hours a week childcare entitlement for their three and four year old children.

Behind this lies the common complaint from childcare providers that they are not properly funded to deliver the free entitlement. As a result nurseries often cross-subsidise the free entitlement by insisting that parents use at least twenty hours of childcare a week and pay a premium for the extra hours.

Of course this approach might work in areas where parents are relatively wealthy but it's a non-starter where parents are either in low paid jobs or are unemployed.

As a result a lot of local authorities now report that there is a shortage of free places available for three and four year olds and for disadvantaged two year olds, as providers retrench their offer and withdraw from the providing the free entitlement.

Add to this the cuts in council funding which are leading to the widespread closure of children's centres - the latest example being 25 centres under threat in Essex alone - and the continuing reduction in the number of childminders across the country.

Although the cost of childcare is reported as being relative stable, parents report to the Good Care Guide that affordability is still their biggest concern.

All in all we have a growing crisis in childcare - not enough places at a price that parents can afford.

Despite increased investment by the government, there must be serious doubts whether the childcare market can meet the needs of children and parents and whether it can alter to keep up with the changing world we live in.

The world of work has developed rapidly in the last two decades. Many more mothers are working but their working patterns have changed considerably too. More parents are working part-time or flexibly, zero hours contracts, and often from home. Pay for many has also been frozen in real terms.

So, it's not surprising therefore that parents' demand for childcare has also changed substantially. Parents may only want 15 free hours of childcare a week and don't want to/can't pay for additional hours, instead relying on extended family such as grandparents and friends to cover other hours. They also need childcare at hours outside those which many traditional childcare providers operate, ie 8am-6pm, as their work requires.

So the big question must be what childcare will parents want and need in the next 10 to 20 years? Will the employment trends be sustained and deepened?

If so, will the government's plan to extend free childcare to thirty hours a week be irrelevant and un-needed by many working parents? And if parents can get thirty hours free, would many want to purchase additional hours (albeit bearing in mind that the free entitlement will only be for 38 weeks a year)?

Similarly will the childcare tax breaks to be introduced next year help parents who are struggling least with childcare costs? Poorer families need help most with the cost of childcare but the help promised through universal credit will not be sufficient.

For childcare providers we are heading towards a perfect storm - inadequately funded free places and parents unable or unwilling to pay for more hours. Something will break as private providers consider their options.

If we are to make affordable childcare a reality for all, we need to be able to answer these questions with an honest debate about our changing society and how the childcare market delivers for families. If we just charge blindly ahead, we are in real danger of wasting huge sums of public money and not serving families in 2016 and beyond.

It is a critical crossroads for childcare.