Most mothers who work have known that stomach-churning feeling
at 8am when their child announces that they don’t feel well.
Juggling work and child care is always tough, but for some people
it is a continuous and insoluble problem.
In 1998 the government set out to reduce the strain with the
launch of the first ever UK National Childcare Strategy. The aim
was to provide accessible, affordable and quality child care in
every neighbourhood, thereby giving children a good start in life
and enabling parents to work or study and thus escape from poverty.
Efforts were concentrated in disadvantaged areas in a bid to
encourage lone parents to take paid work and discourage them from
relying on benefits.
Six years on there are inevitable gaps and complaints, but there
are more than half a million extra child care places. All three and
four year olds have the right to part-time nursery places, and the
Sure Start programme is well-established. Now, it appears that the
government is shifting its focus away from the most disadvantaged
areas towards a universal system.
In his comprehensive spending review speech in July, chancellor
Gordon Brown said the 21st century “should be marked by the
introduction of pre-school provision for the under-fives and child
care available to all”. The prime minister has since said that
Labour’s “third term commitment is to develop universal good
quality affordable child care for children aged three-14”. And the
education secretary told the Labour Party conference: “We will
create across the country a seamless system of high quality,
flexible and affordable child care for our under-fives”.
The government will soon publish a 10-year child care strategy
which will explain in more detail how it hopes to achieve its
The Daycare Trust and the Social Market Foundation have
developed their own joint vision of what services for children and
families should be included in the long-term strategy, and
commissioned economists at PricewaterhouseCoopers to consider the
costs, benefits and options for funding it. The main policy package
outlined by the charity and the independent public policy think
• Extending paid parental leave to 12 months.
• Introducing home care allowances for parents of one year
• A combination of free education and wraparound care for
two to four year olds.
• Wraparound care provision for five to 14 year olds.
• A significant enhancement of the skills and
qualifications level of the early years workforce.
They say their vision builds on the prime minister’s
proposals, but aims to provide a genuine choice to all parents
about staying at home with their children or going out to work with
guaranteed affordable, high quality child care.
The report’s estimates of the cost to public finances are
based on the assumption that parents would pay an average of 30 per
cent of total costs, compared with the 75 per cent of child care
costs they pay now. But if it is to be affordable to all parents
who want it, most of the extra spending will have to be met by
government, says the report. It will not come cheap, but there
could be major economic and social benefits from the policy, it
In the short term, these would include an increase in parental
employment rates, particularly for mothers with young children. In
the longer term the children’s improved pre-school experience
could boost their productivity as adult employees. And there are
other potential social benefits in terms of more equal life chances
and reduced child poverty.
John Hawksworth, head of macroeconomics at
PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the report’s main author, says:
“It can be argued that, even if the costs slightly outweigh the
quantifiable economic benefits, this policy would still be an
attractive one … because of its wider social benefits.”
But there are major obstacles to overcome to make it workable.
After the question of finance for extended parental leave, the next
query is, who will deliver all this additional child care?
It’s not just the large numbers of extra staff that will
be needed to achieve the vision, says Nancy Platts, Daycare Trust
head of policy and campaigns, as there will also have to be much
more training to boost their level of academic success.
She says: “Research shows that staff qualifications are one of
the most important drivers of quality in early education and care.
To produce the benefits in terms of children’s cognitive,
social and emotional skills, we need to attract and retain quality
early years staff. And that means investing in their development
and valuing them for the work they do now, instead of seeing early
years work as the first step on a career ladder to better
Sue Owen, director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National
Children’s Bureau, agrees.
She says: “The Early Childhood Forum is calling for all
practitioners to be level 3 qualified as a minimum and for movement
towards a graduate level workforce. This should contribute to the
retention of the workforce, which is one of the most important
elements in quality provision: ensuring that children see the same
providers all the time.
“There also has to be some serious thinking about raising the
pay and status in our sector. Unfortunately, as long as this is
linked to what parents can pay then even the highest levels of
qualification will not trigger the kinds of pay levels which make
the profession attractive to join and to stay in.”
Working parents everywhere will rejoice if the government can
conjure up a workable, affordable, quality child
care programme that allows them a real choice about whether to
opt for paid work, to study for future employment, or to take time
out to look after their young children.