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Opinion

No more distractions: The next prime minister must tackle the childcare crisis

Megan Jarvie, managing director of Coram Family and Childcare, is calling on the government to support families struggling with childcare costs.

With the long school holidays well underway, parents up and down the country are grappling with logistical and financial challenges to secure the childcare they need. Everyday families face impossible choices as they juggle their careers and caring responsibilities, and will be desperately looking to the next prime minister for urgent solutions to tackle this crisis.

Coram Family and Childcare’s recent Holiday Childcare Survey has laid bare some of these challenges. The average place at a holiday club now costs £148 a week – a 5 per cent rise on last year and more than double what parents pay for an after-school club during term time. Families now find themselves almost £900 out of pocket for six weeks of holiday childcare for each school age child.

As the cost of living crisis sweeps across the nation, these eyewatering costs threaten to tip families into even deeper financial distress. And for some, the huge cost means that they simply can’t afford to work or even end up paying to work.

But families aren’t just buckling under the cost of holiday childcare, we also found that many parents will struggle to find the type of childcare they need. Only 27 per cent of local authorities in England have enough holiday childcare available for parents in their area who work full time, down 6 per cent on last year. For parents of disabled children, the situation is even more dire, with only 7 per cent of local authorities in England reporting enough holiday childcare for these families, plunging from 16 per cent last year. Many parents rely on a patchy mix of formal holiday childcare, annual leave and unpaid leave, while cobbling together support from friends and family to plug the gap.

We now know that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on children’s educational outcomes and wellbeing – including rising levels of poor mental health and obesity. It is now more important than ever that school age children have access to safe, sociable, and stimulating environments where they can thrive outside the classroom. The Covid-19 learning loss has widened the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers, and long summer holidays without access to activities will only exacerbate these inequalities.

The alarming panorama of unaffordable and inaccessible childcare coupled with soaring living costs are symptoms of a broken system and it is a raw deal for children, families, workers and employers. But relaxing childcare ratios, a measure recently touted by the government and the subject of a consultation, is not the answer. It is a disappointing and unhelpful distraction that is unlikely to reduce costs for families yet will reduce quality. It will also place additional pressure on early years professionals who already feel underpaid and undervalued. Unsurprisingly, the proposal is also unpopular with parents, particularly those who have children with disabilities and additional needs.

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Our childcare system is inefficient and underperforming. We want to see real reform that recognises childcare as the essential infrastructure it is and a system that works for children, families, workers, providers, employers and the taxpayer. This requires political will and can’t be done overnight. But, in the short term, there are some urgent steps the government can take to help families right now.

Universal credit needs to be reformed so that it works for parents. Parents need support paid up front to be able to take on work or increase their hours – not in arrears.

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The £2.4bn underspend from Tax-Free Childcare should be reallocated to support low-income families and we should expand the provision of the Holiday Activities and Food programme to offer healthy meals and enriching activities for children.

But ultimately, systemic childcare reform will not be achieved by piecemeal proposals. Investing in childcare should be at the very heart of our strategy to rebuild and renew after the pandemic – strengthening the economy and levelling up.

But we are not yet seeing the ambitious pledges that are needed. Rather than trying to fix the system to make it easier for parents to work, Liz Truss is looking at tax reform to make it easier for parents to stay at home. And Rishi Sunak is simply silent on the issue. Families up and down the country need better than this so that they can have genuine choices about work and care.

Megan Jarvie is managing director of Coram Family and Childcare

Here’s our Summer Survival Guide, which we will update regularly with new articles and tips on making sure your kids have a fun summer without breaking the bank

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