What is childcare for?

Craig Berry

At long last, the state of childcare provision in the UK is becoming a major political issue. The Guardian reported recently that the Department for Education has proposed an extension of the current policy in England of 30-hours-a-week free childcare entitlement for three and four year-olds, to all children aged over nine months. The Treasury is unlikely to agree in full, but some expansion of provision is probably on the horizon, responding to Labour’s plan for guaranteed, state-run care from the end of parental leave until primary school begins.

This shift is long overdue. Given the UK’s work-first approach to welfare, arguably it is odd that it has taken this long. But I think we need also think about the outcomes we want childcare provision to deliver – enabling employment is not the only priority. Reflecting on the reasons we have been so slow to confront patchy and unaffordable provision might help us to arrive at a more comprehensive plan for supporting quality childcare.

High costs, low quality

More often than not, the debate about childcare in recent years has focused on whether provision is available and affordable, with a particular focus on the ability of parents to move into work, or increase their hours in existing employment. Financial support for childcare costs is seen as inadequate, or poorly designed, making things particularly difficult for people on very low incomes.

It is of course true that costs are extraordinarily high – seemingly the highest in the OECD. Costs are expected to rise by around 8% in the year ahead, or around £1,000 on the typical nursery bill. It is also undoubtedly the case that subsidies are inadequate, even chaotic. Nurseries do not receive from government the actual costs of offering ‘free’ hours, and there is a gap for parents of children aged under three, most of whom receive no support.

Some low-income families are able to access 15 free hours per week for two year-olds, but often face high up-front costs before subsidies become available, and Universal Credit withdrawal in combination with higher childcare costs means that by moving into work or increasing hours, the policy leaves many worse off financially.

The debate has focused less on the quality of childcare: high costs do not necessarily lead to high standards. Staff are under-paid and insecure. Low morale and high turnover are seemingly endemic problems, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government’s 2022 proposal – which it may or may not have forgotten about – to cut staff-to-child ratios would have further undermined standards, with hardly any impact on costs for parents.

The fact that many providers are struggling financially due to inadequate funding is part of the quality shortfall. But so is an extractive, profit-driven business model among many providers. This leaves disadvantaged areas even worse off, as providers eschew communities whose residents are less able to afford rising fees. 

The 15-hour policy was partly about encouraging the highest quality providers to open facilities in poorer areas, but the subsidy level is far too low to produce any such impact. NESTA reported recently that due to low take-up and poor attendance, the policy has had no impact on closing the gap in early years attainment between children from disadvantaged and more affluent families.

One of the curiosities of this issue is that, insofar as it has been assessed, government subsidies for childcare costs appear to have a limited impact on productivity – despite the fact that the case for further support often rests upon the impediment to employment of inadequate childcare.

This is partly about the kind of jobs which people on low-incomes – who have the most difficulty finding suitable childcare – are likely to move into. A higher employment rate does not lead to higher productivity across the economy, and indeed can have the opposite impact if the supply of cheap labour disincentivises capital investment by firms.

It is also partly about the fact that cost-benefit analyses tend to be narrowly conceived, assessing the impact of the 15- or 30-hours subsidy policies (or slight adjustments) on local labour markets, and accordingly finding no evidence of a transformative impact. A more holistic, but harder to model, approach to providing adequate childcare is likely to increase productivity as well as employment, by allowing parents to access a greater range of employment opportunities.

The politics of reproduction

Why has it taken so long for childcare to receive serious attention from UK policy-makers? Why are we so reluctant to really even investigate the problem of poor childcare provision – let alone devise the solutions required?

work-first approach to welfare (which has long been the norm in the UK, but has intensified since the financial crisis) might suggest removing supply-side barriers to labour market entry would be a fairly typical UK government policy. This objective has of course underpinned the 15- and 30-hours policies.

But the imperative of encouraging people into work has always existed in tandem with the need to inhibit empowerment through work. This helps to explain the focus of UK employment policy on job-search services (and benefit sanctions) ahead of vocational training. Similarly, if more affordable and available childcare allows parents to be choosier about the kind of work they are able to take on, it could jeopardise an economic model which is rather good at delivering high employment but low wages, and high profitability but low growth.

Furthermore, we should not confuse the objective of supporting parents into work with supporting people to become parents in the first place. Increasingly, parenthood is a hostile environment in the UK, especially for the poor, with the populist right never tiring of telling people not to have children that they cannot afford, reflected in dehumanising policies such as Universal Credit’s two-child limit.

In short, we want the poor to work, but if childcare is a barrier, the answer is not to provide better childcare for those who need it most. Instead, the poor should have fewer children. The costs of the social reproduction of labour have always fallen upon the family sphere – predominantly women – sparing both the public sector and private employers. 

A feminist reading of our neglect of childcare would of course emphasise the cultural as well as class relations context. The state of childcare in the UK is a mess of contradictory impulses, with patriarchal norms impeding the development of an approach economically advantageous to both capital and labour.

Women with children may be encouraged to work, but they are not systematically supported to work through the alleviation of childcare burdens. We lack the epistemological tools necessary to even try to understand this burden (not least because it usually appears to have been chosen rather than structurally imposed).

This critique has found some space in mainstream public debates recently, for instance through concern about the additional ‘mental load’ faced by mothers. The responsibility women are expected to take on for children – even when they are being cared for by other women performing waged labour – holds back women’s careers, and therefore economic growth, in ways that are unlikely to ever be seen by conventional economic analysis.

A parent-centred plan for childcare

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has demanded that childcare provision be extended, in order to ensure parents are more available for work. The current government are likely to comply, to some extent – and the next government almost certainly will. Labour’s plans for an expansion of state-run childcare, with subsidies for most children up to primary school age, is a big step in the right direction.

This shift can be justified as a supply-side employment support measure (which is largely how the CBI is thinking about it). But it also signals an expansion – indeed feminisation – of the welfare state, both through more financial support to cover the uninsurable ‘risk’ of how parenthood affects participation in the economy, and through the partial integration of childcare provision within the public sector.

IPPR has adopted the welfarist framing of a ‘childcare guarantee’ to advocate for an expansion of support for childcare costs. The plan offers a mix of expansion of the 15- and 30-hour policies for all parents (including providers the actual costs of free provision) and means-tested support for additional hours. IPPR expects a childcare guarantee to provide a net benefit to the Exchequer of almost £8 billion, as increased investment leads to higher tax revenues and lower Universal Credit expenditure as parents are more able to work.

The focus on the childcare sector from an industrial policy perspective – signalling perhaps the feminisation of industrial strategy – is also welcome. The sector needs to innovate to meet rising demand – and it can help to create more stable and rewarding professional careers for its highly-trained workers in the process.

There are, however, risks involved in investing in childcare provision which have not yet been fully acknowledged. As noted above, the debate continues to focus on issues around availability and affordability, marginalising concerns about the quality of provision. This problem is part of a wider neglect of what early years provision is for. It is for parents, and for the economy. But it should also be for children.

Few parents want their children to be cared for by strangers – no matter how qualified, no matter how caring – for ten hours a day, five days a week. Even if we could drastically increase the quality of childcare provision, is there any evidence that it would be the best way to support the development and well-being of our children? Most children benefit from early years provision, but alongside rather than in place of time with their parents.

We need to be mindful of the possibility that parents and children simply might not want to access all of the childcare provision that a future government might make available. And that should be okay.

Investment in early years provision, in particular, has to be driven primarily by the benefits to children, rather than to the labour market. There is of course something inherently progressive about helping mothers to enjoy the same economic freedoms that traditionally have been available only to fathers. But as well as allowing mums to live like dads, we should perhaps be doing the opposite too: expecting (and supporting) men to take on more of the ‘women’s work’ of child-rearing.

Recent developments around shared parental leave represent small but useful steps in this regard. But we need to go much further. The benefit system should be empowering parents to work both more and less, depending on the needs of their children. Employers need to do a lot more to build family-friendly workplaces. Above all, we need a major expansion of parental rights, and connecting the experience of parenthood to ideas such as the four-day week and universal basic income (while also thinking about parenthood in the broadest possible terms as we bestow and enhance these rights: familial relationships come in all shapes and sizes).

Craig Berry is Head of Policy and Associate Professor of Economic Policy at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. An earlier version of this post appeared on Craig’s Substack, The Political Economy Blog.