Tax-Free, 30 Hours and Why Childcare is in My Firing Line
After recent world-wide 'shocks' in the political sphere, Ben thinks that the Government has a prime opportunity to finally fix the shambles that is the UK childcare market
A rant about childcare
The Government's childcare policy is an absolute shambles. It has a couple of excuses, none of which are really good enough anymore. More importantly, there is, in this post-Brexit/Trump reality, a golden chance for the all-powerful Theresa May to fix it once and for all. Come on Theresa, I know you want to.
New Labour started it. Provide quality affordable childcare for all and there will be amazing long term benefits for UK PLC. That was the rallying cry. It was good fun pretending to be Sweden for a bit, but it didn't last very long. Once enough money had been thrown at the problem - in some laughingly inefficient ways - the aim was gradually watered down. It's now about helping mothers (and fathers) go back to work. Concentrate on the economic benefits and everything else will sort itself out, or will it?
That's the first problem. Quality affordable childcare is an amazing aim and a very expensive one. Helping parents back to work isn't a bad thing, but pretending to be about the former and then concentrating on the latter... Well, that just creates bedlam.
Something to be proud of
Despite the shambles, we actually have a pretty good - and sophisticated - childcare sector. We have a big bad regulator in Ofsted. We have 14,000 nurseries, about 90% of which are places you would be OK leaving your children. We have some amazing, but unloved, childminders. And we have better nannies than anywhere else in the world.
Do you know which part of the childcare matrix has got bigger and cheaper in the last 10 years? Yes, nannies - the only part of the mix that has been left untouched by any clever Govt. meddling. Just maybe there's a lesson in there somewhere?
What do parents actually want?
I don't know what parents want - and they often don't know either! We lead complicated lives where the boundaries between work and family have become increasingly blurred. Parents, at different times, will actually need a bit of everything - including friends, family and their own time thrown into the mix. What they do not want is some clever, Whitehall mandarin (read 'bureaucrat') trying to tell them how to go about providing childcare for their children.
30 hours of free childcare?
It's mayhem out there. Vouchers are being scrapped. Probably? Possibly? Who knows? Tax free childcare is coming, and we have the much-heralded 30 hours of free care arriving over the horizon, like that bloke who used to charge at windmills. Parents need help when their child is 1 year old. That's when they're trying to work out the finances, and how flexible working is going to help or hinder.
30 free hours for 3-4 year olds was a promise thrown out there by the Tories when they thought they had no chance of having a majority. Ditch it, please.
Is there a good solution?
YES! Just give working parents some extra money to spend how and when they see fit. Let them spend it on any type of care - nannies, childminders, school holiday clubs, eldercare - as they decide.
As sure as night follows day, it will end up in the hands of the providers that give the flexibility that working parents want and need. It might also be a start in the battle to plug the gaping holes in our social care provision. As for policing it, just throw that back to those hard pressed, but very rule-oriented, folk in payroll. They're good at this.
Sorry for the rant. I do actually feel better now. And rest assured, there are some rather more cogent and well-written thoughts on the subject of childcare out there, if you're interested in reading them...