Child care reforms?

Twenty- five years ago Margaret Thatcher’s first health
secretary, Patrick Jenkin, said: “Quite frankly I don’t think
mothers have the same right to work as fathers do. If the good Lord
had intended us to have equal rights to go out to work, He wouldn’t
have created man and woman. These are biological facts.”

Today in Britain, most mothers, even of very young children,
have paid work and the Conservative Party’s shadow secretary for
the family, Theresa May, is reassuring the public that they should
no longer assume her party “would always be saying ‘Thou shall sit
at home’. We are not: we are saying this is about choice for

The prime minister at the Day Care Trust’s annual conference
last year promised universal affordable child care for all three
and four year olds and a Sure Start Children’s Centre in every
community. The publication in early December of Choice for Parents,
the Best Start for Children: a Ten-Year Strategy for Childcare,
spelt out in more detail how this major expansion is to be
achieved. Earlier this month, Gordon Brown argued that Labour’s
next manifesto should aspire to giving all British children the
best start in life and that the government must prove this ambition
by prioritising child care.

In Britain, therefore, child care policies have now moved to the
centre stage of social policy and are heavily linked to both
employment policies and the objective of abolishing child poverty
within the next 20 years.

“Choice”, “flexibility” and “affordability” are key words used
across the political spectrum with respect to child care, although
there are different views about how these are best achieved.

The latest strategy document describes how the government’s
aspirations are to be achieved for three to four year olds and for
school age children. These plans have a degree of continuity with
current policies although there are still major obstacles, in
particular the creation of a stable, well-trained and well-paid
child care workforce. Moreover, can we really achieve sustainable,
universal and affordable services with heavy dependence on the
private-for-profit sector combined with a reluctance to raise

Policies for two year olds and under remain the most problematic
and are a long way from offering parents real choice. First, formal
group child care services for very young children are expensive for
they require high staffing ratios. The expansion of free pre-school
education for three and four year olds has enabled the government
to directly subsidise places for this group, half of which are now
found in the private-for-profit sector. There is some discussion of
expanding “education” – whatever that means – to two year olds but
only as pilot projects in disadvantaged areas. This will do little
to encourage the private sector to expand provision for very young

Second, the impact of group care on the well-being and
development of children under two years remains contentious,
although research confirms that quality and consistency of care is
crucial to their well-being.

Third, however, new figures suggest the decline in childminder
numbers has been halted and there are more policies to support the
care of children in their own homes including the recognition of
registered nannies (but not grannies) in the child care tax credit

Fourth and very important, is the extension of paid maternity
leave to a year and the proposal to allow mothers to transfer part
of their leave to fathers. However, British mothers, in the context
of British long hours work culture, know they pay heavily in
reduced future earnings and career opportunities by working shorter
or flexible hours or taking leave even if they can afford to do so.
These lessons are not lost on fathers. A recent study on paternity
leave shows that across the EU fathers are concerned about damaging
their careers and are not inclined to take leave unless their
earnings are fully replaced. Britain is still a long way from fully
valuing children and those who care for them.

Hilary Land is emeritus professor and senior research
fellow at the Centre for Family Policy and Child Welfare,
University of Bristol.


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