Government's £4bn childcare plan will 'leave disadvantaged kids behind', charities warn
A new report from Coram and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has found that the government's childcare plans will benefit middle-income families while disadvantaged kids are trapped in a cycle of poverty
Early education is so important for young children and their development for the future, the charities say. Image: Unsplash
Disadvantaged children will continue “falling behind” as middle-income and wealthier families benefit from the government’s childcare plans, charities have warned.
A new report from Coram and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has found that the government’s planned £4 billion investment in childcare will disproportionately benefit higher-income families unless it is retargeted to help vulnerable children.
“Disadvantaged children are falling behind before they even start school,” said Megan Jarvie, head of Coram’s family and childcare unit. “A well-designed childcare system can be a key tool in tackling this disadvantage. But instead, families are stuck in poverty and children are missing out on early education that could better prepare them for school.”
Currently, all children aged three to four are eligible for 30 hours of free childcare a week – but only if their parents are working 16 hours each week. The government is set to expand the free childcare scheme to parents of all children over nine-months old. The same criteria will apply meaning non-working families will continue to miss out on access to childcare.
It assumes that unemployed parents are free to look after their children, but the charities say early education helps prepare children for school and vulnerable children are losing key opportunities in their development.
Even if their parents are working, research shows “children living in poverty are less likely to take up their free early education entitlement”. The report argues that this could be because awareness is lower in deprived areas, with 91% of people aware of the scheme in the least deprived areas and 72% aware in the least deprived areas.
Parents with English as an additional language report finding the application process difficult, according to the charities, and there may be cultural barriers. A non-white British child is 12% less likely to take up their free childcare place than white British children. Take-up is particularly low for children from Bangladeshi families at 30%, and Gypsy/Roma children at 34%.
The government plans to pay extra support for childcare upfront to parents receiving universal credit, helping them stay in work. The current system requires parents to pay the fees upfront, then claim the money back, which leaves them at risk of falling into debt.
But Coram and JRF have said that parents could be losing out financially if they take up childcare. A parent on minimum wage takes home around £4 per hour after childcare costs and once the universal credit taper rate has been applied, according to the report. This means childcare effectively erodes over half of their earnings.
Abby Jitendra, the principal policy advisor for care, family and relationships at the JRF, said: “The childcare system we have now is failing disadvantaged children – parents don’t take up the services they are entitled to because, in doing so, they’d lose out financially. The only option many have is to reduce the hours they work in order to stop being penalised.”
A low-earning single parent will find that they are only £60 per month better off if they increase their working hours from four to five days.
“We urgently need to rebalance the childcare and early years system to better serve the children who stand to benefit the most,” Jarvie added. “We have set out a reformed system to better meet the needs of all families and children, and to level the playing field for disadvantaged children.”
The charities are calling for a “complete reform” of the childcare system, with targeted funding for disadvantaged children rather than government funding being spread out too thinly by expanding 30 hours of free childcare to all very young children.
Instead they believe 15 hours of free childcare should be offered to all two-year-olds, and 30 hours of free childcare should be offered to all three and four-year-olds. This would benefit more disadvantaged children, who are less likely to meet the work criteria. And a means-tested system would mean other families pay a small contribution to childcare that is affordable for them, while families in poverty would not pay anything.
“A childcare system that works doesn’t just help parents, it improves our economy, our communities and our society,” Jitendra said. “We know the UK government is up to this challenge otherwise it wouldn’t have proposed an expansion but their plans risk entrenching an even less fair system which would become very difficult to unravel.”
The government’s planned changes include increasing the number of children a member of staff can look after at the same time, which campaigners warn could impact the quality of early education.
Coram and the JRF are calling for an investment in the quality of childcare, including better pay for professionals and higher levels of qualifications. It also asks that the government introduce a simple and affordable means-tested payment system for parents to ensure all children get equal access to early education.
The charities also argue that childcare must be a pillar in a wider support system, with properly funded local authorities and social services, to ensure disadvantaged children are given the best start in life rather than being trapped in a cycle of poverty.
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