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Reinventing childcare policy will not mean more affordable childcare, says Dr Verity Campbell-Barr

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In July this year the Coalition published More Affordable Childcare, setting out its plans to help families with the affordability and accessibility of childcare. As I read the document, I (like many other people) had a sense of déjà vu. The proposals being presented did not feel different or new, they felt incredibly similar to what had existed prior to the Coalition coming into power. In fact, I felt as if I had read the document somewhere before, leading me to delve around in the childcare policy archives to see what I could find.

Here I present an analysis of New Labour’s Green Paper on childcare: Meeting the Childcare Challenge (published in 1998) and the Coalition’s More Affordable Childcare, with reference to More Great Childcare as well. I consider how the documents frame the role of childcare and whether there is really anything different about the childcare policy proposals of today to those of 1998.

Setting the context

When Meeting the Childcare Challenge was published it was regarded as something of a breakthrough. Developments in childcare policy had been limited during the 1990s and even more limited prior to that. For many it was a sign that finally childcare was being placed on the policy agenda and whilst not all of the developments that have taken place since have been warmly welcomed, I still feel that it is good to see politicians taking an interest in childcare.

In Meeting the Childcare Challenge there were three challenges to be addressed (page 12, section 1.11):

  • the quality of childcare can be variable;

  • the cost of care is high and out of the reach of many parents; and

  • in some areas there are not enough childcare places and parents' access to them is hampered by poor information.

Since this time the overall provision of childcare has significantly increased. Between 2006 and 2011 childcare provision increased from 1,619,100 to 1,906,100 places (up 18%)[1]. In addition early years education places are now being accessed for 98 percent of four-year-olds and 76 percent of three-year-olds[2]. Alongside this, local authorities, working in partnership with childcare providers such as children’s centres have worked hard in helping parents to feel more informed about the childcare that is available and the support they can get with the cost of childcare.

Despite these developments in the provision of and access to early years education and childcare places, 15 years after New Labour’s Green Paper, the Coalition published More Affordable Childcare. In the document it also presents three challenges with the provision of childcare (page 12, section 2.10):

  • many parents who work are struggling to afford the cost of childcare;

  • there is a lack of affordable provision available, when parents need it; and,

  • information for parents about how to access childcare needs to be improved.

Whilst it is clear that challenges around childcare must come in threes, there are clear similarities between Meeting the Childcare Challenge and More Affordable Childcare in terms of their focus. Whilst quality is not explicitly mentioned in the Coalition’s three challenges, the much disputed More Great Childcare has made it clear that quality is on the Coalition’s agenda. What this demonstrates is that despite 15 years of policy intervention in the provision of childcare, we are still debating the same areas.

I do not dispute that challenges remain around the affordability and accessibility of childcare provision, but we should not lose sight of the progress that has been made and the hard work of early years education and childcare providers in achieving this progress. However, what I would like to focus on is the finer detail of the similarities (and some differences) between the objectives of New Labour and the Coalition.

The policy objectives

It is clear that the political agenda on the provision of childcare has been and is focused on the need to support working parents. Both documents discuss the need to increase childcare provision and make it more affordable so that employment is financially viable. Both documents refer to choice in relation to how to combine work and family life, although this is a choice for those who can afford it (there is no choice for those who are on benefits) and in More Affordable Childcare there is very gendered focus to this choice.

Whilst Meeting the Childcare Challenged recognised the role of fathers in managing a family’s work-life balance, the mention of fathers in More Affordable Childcare is as a comparator to the low employment rate of mothers, not in recognising the role that they can play in a familiy's work-life balance. There have long been discussions on the feminisation of childcare, both in terms of supply and demand, but More Affordable Childcare does little to dilute this gendering as it frames childcare clearly as a women’s issue.

Alongside the role of childcare in supporting parental employment is recognition of the role it can play in supporting a child’s social and emotional development. Whilst it is of no surprise to see the focus on working parents alongside the focus on child development, analysis of the documents demonstrates that parental employment takes up more space in the reports.

In fact More Affordable Childcare says very little about the child development side of things as this is reserved for More Great Childcare. What is interesting, is that whilst New Labour attempted to blur together the focus on parental employment and child development, the Coalition have separated out these two aspects in their recent proposals.

The solutions

As we have seen, both administrations concern themselves with the cost and availability of childcare. Yet there are other similarities, in particular in looking at the provision of childcare More Affordable Childcare believes that we are not getting the most out of school sites in providing childcare places. Am I alone in remembering the Extended Schools Initiative? Is there a lack of new ideas for expanding the provision of out of school childcare?

Sadly the new ideas appear to be in some worrying areas. More Great Childcare, as mentioned, has been hotly debated in terms of what it might mean for the quality of provision. One aspect of this is the role of Local Authorities that is reiterated in More Affordable Childcare.

Local Authorities and the support that they offer providers have been somewhat demonised within the recent proposals. The criticism of Local Authorities has suggested that they are overly prescriptive and bureaucratic, but what worries me about this is that there is very little evidence to support these claims. The role of Local Authorities is a much under-researched area. What we do know is that Ofsted, as the national inspectorate on quality, is and has always been about minimum standards. The research evidence that is available on the role of Local Authorities suggests not only concerns with the inspection grades given, but also that Local Authorities wish to remind providers that Outstanding still has scope for development when recognised as Outstanding at minimum standards[3].

Worrying times

The proposals that are being put forward at present suggest little evolution in ideas to respond to the challenges facing the provision of early years education and childcare. I, like others, have a number of concerns about what has been proposed, but I am dismayed by a failure to look at some of our most recent initiatives in developing so called ‘new’ ideas. The new ideas that are present appear to have little evidence to support that they will be effective. The driver appears to be saving money in the delivery of services, but at what consequence for providers, parents and children?

I am particularly concerned that the focus of the policy agendas puts parents’ needs before those of early years education and childcare providers, but I’m even more worried about the position of the child within recent policy debates.

My initial reading of the two documents was to analyse for the concepts of childhood that underpinned the political interest in childcare. My heart-breaking find was that there was not one reference to childhood in any of the documents. More Great Childcare has the word childhood, but only in relation to early childhood qualifications.

At a time when David Cameron is concerned that childhood is being eroded as a result of children having access to inappropriate websites, I would suggest there is a need to take a step back and realise that childcare policy starts with the word child. Surely this should be the primary focus of any national childcare strategy or drive for More Great and Affordable Childcare. If truly worried about the erosion of childhood, investing in the services that have child in their name would seem a good place to start if we are to truly value children and childhood.

 


[1] Data obtained from the Childcare and Early Yeas Providers Survey, 2011.

[2] Data obtained from the Childcare and Early Years Survey of Parents, 2011.

[3] Campbell-Barr, V. (2010) Providing A Context for Looking at Quality and Value in Early Years Education, report to the Office for National Statistics Measuring Outcomes for Public Service Users project, http://www.ons.gov.uk/about-statistics/methodology-and-quality/measuring-outcomes-for-public-service-users/index.html

 

Dr Verity Campbell-Barr is Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies, Plymouth Institute of Education, Plymouth University

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