Two steps forward, one step back

Last month the National Audit Office reported on the progress made in the first five years of the National Childcare Strategy. The good news is 626,000 new child care places have been created in England since 1999.Two-thirds are for school-age children. The bad news is that in the same period more than 300,000 child care places were lost. Despite government funding targeted on the 20 per cent most deprived wards these areas still have less provision than elsewhere although the gap overall is narrowing. Many providers are in a financially precarious situation. Nearly half reported they did not always cover their costs and only just over half knew what they would do when their time-limited funds ended.

This erratic progress towards affordable, accessible and sustainable child care services arises in part from government attempts to create a child care “market”. Providers range from childminders, including those (40 per cent) who provide child care only as long as they have a young child themselves and the more entrepreneurial with a longer term view; pre-school playgroups which grew out of self-help groups of parents; sole owners of a single nursery to the trans-national corporation with nurseries in the UK and North America. Their willingness and ability to respond to government incentives to expand varies. If the government had understood this the fall in the numbers of childminders (accounting for two-thirds of lost places) and the fall in the number of playgroup places (down by a fifth) could have been anticipated.

The most worrying issue concerns the child care workforce. Altogether 175,000 new recruits will be needed in the next three years but since 2001 the rate of recruitment is well below that needed to achieve this. In addition, 130,000 existing staff will require training. But only just over a quarter of providers have a training budget let alone the capacity to provide the skilled supervision which Modern Apprenticeships and Foundation degrees require. Retention is also a problem.

Indeed, “high turnover of staff was by far the biggest threat cited by providers.” This is not surprising. The UK has the least qualified child care workforce in Europe. It is also very badly paid. Unless this is addressed and the government relies less heavily on the “market”, the development of child care provision, in contrast to early years education which has permanent funding from general taxation, will continue to consist of two steps forward and one step back.

Hilary Land is professor in family policy at Bristol University.

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