Opinion

It's time we made childcare about children, not just about work

Childcare needs to focus on the needs of children rather than just allowing parents to work, says Tom Pollard from the New Economics Foundation.

Two girls play with wooden blocks in a childcare setting

Good childcare puts children first. Image: cottonbro studio/Pexels

In late 2021, working as an independent researcher, I spent some time in food banks talking to people about the circumstances that had led them there and the impact on their mental health. I distinctly remember a conversation with one parent, Philippa (not her real name), who was on universal credit and told me that the biggest single factor standing in the way of her getting into work was that she would have to pay for the first month of childcare upfront then claim the costs back later. She simply didn’t have the money to do this.

Last week, changes were introduced to universal credit meaning parents will be eligible for more support with the cost of childcare and, crucially, they will be able to seek this support up front rather than having to claim it back in arrears. These are welcome developments and the potential positive impact for Phillipa and thousands of parents in her position should not be underestimated.

However, as with the broader set of changes to funding for childcare announced in the Spring Budget, these reforms do little to address some of the critical underlying problems with the current system. Whether it’s about the experience of parents accessing provision, the quality of care and support children receive, pay and progression opportunities staff, or the sustainability and social commitment of providers, our system of childcare and early years education is falling short and at risk of falling apart.

While a change of policy that could help people like Philippa move into work is a good thing, we have to ask: why was she ever left in such a position? Tracing this question back can help us to understand the weaknesses of the current system and the values, assumptions and priorities that underlie them.

Philippa is only able to access support with the cost of childcare once she moves into work because the assumption baked into the system is that this support needs to be dangled as an incentive rather than provided as a foundation. Having unconditional access to childcare could allow Philippa to focus on finding a job, or addressing other issues that are standing in the way of her working.

Alongside support from universal credit, as Philippa moves into work and potentially increases her hours, she will become eligible for a complex web of ‘free hours’ and ‘tax-free childcare’. Given the knowledge and time required to navigate these systems and processes, it’s hardly surprising that many people end up missing out on support they are eligible for.

All of this is built on the premise that the primary purpose of childcare is to allow parents to work, with much less regard given to the potential benefits for the child. The very term ‘childcare’ is loaded with this implication, whereas ‘early years education’, the term we prefer at the New Economics Foundation, speaks to a wider objective of supporting a child’s development. The emphasis on childcare as an enabler of work means that children from low income households, who could benefit the most from early years education, are locked out of it.

A shift from a narrow focus on childcare to a broader objective of early years education would entail paying more attention to the quality of support on offer rather than simply the quantity. Supporting the educational, developmental and emotional needs of children requires a highly-qualified workforce, which in turn requires good pay and progression opportunities to attract and retain staff. It would also mean holding providers to a broader range of social obligations, such as playing an active role in closing educational attainment gaps.

At the New Economics Foundation, we want to make the case for a much bolder overhaul of early years education. Rather than simply being a transaction that enables parents to work, this provision should be seen in the same bracket as other key public services like schools. We’re using the universal basic services framework to develop an alternative approach that would not only work better for parents, but would alter the lives of a whole generation. 

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

Tom Pollard is head of social policy at the New Economics Foundation.

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