'Free childcare' culture does not serve the sector well

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Government early years policy needs a radical rethink to meet the interests of parents and providers, says Len Shackleton

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The ‘free childcare’ culture presents the childcare sector with problems. Nurseries and childminders already struggle with the 15 hours entitlement, let alone the planned 30 hours. In many cases the funding received from the government doesn’t cover all costs, and it has to be subsidised by parents outside the scheme paying more.

There doesn’t seem to be any logic to this; parents pay through the nose when their children are very small and then suddenly get a large chunk of taxpayer-funded generosity. I well remember when my elder daughter turned three and we were suddenly £3,000 a year better off. With her 18-month old sister we are back in sharp-intake-of -breath territory.

Increasing dependence on government funds and over-charging some parents is a precarious position for providers to be in. Failure to square this circle is one of the reasons for the spate of closures and threatened closures of nurseries, and the continuing collapse of childminding.

Yet this is only one among several problems. Another is the regulatory demands the government has placed on the sector – the staffing requirements which seem to exceed most of those elsewhere in Europe, the new occupational qualifications and the still over-elaborate Early Years Foundation Stage.

The EYFS is based on an educational model of childcare, which for many children who only use nurseries for limited periods is unnecessary. The hours spent observing and photographing toddlers (and then photoshopping out their playmates’ faces) could be put to better use. No other country has anything quite like this.

And remember that already in the UK William Blake’s ‘shades of the prison-house begin to close’ on our kids much earlier than in other countries. Compulsory Big School now begins at four and a half for most British children. Do they really need to be monitored and assessed any earlier?

Government intervention in pre-school is a comparatively recent phenomenon; until the mid-90s it was largely the preserve of the commercial and voluntary sectors. The motivation behind state involvement is confused. Over the years, it has embraced several sometimes conflicting aims: to encourage more parents into work, to raise the quality of provision, to make childcare more accessible, and to improve pre-school preparation for disadvantaged children with the objective of boosting future educational performance and life chances.

Given these disparate aims, it is difficult to evaluate performance overall. But evaluation on each of these criteria suggests unimpressive results. For instance, under Labour much was made of getting more women back into work. There has been some effect, but rather little. Free or subsidised formal provision often simply substitutes for informal childcare, for instance in the family, with little net effect on labour market supply.
 
In one study the cost of getting an extra mother into employment has been calculated at £65,000 per job, with many of these jobs being part-time.
 
Provision for disadvantaged children is inadequately targeted and seems from published evaluation reports to have little lasting effect on future educational performance. Sure Start and associated children’s centres (which now seem finally to be on the way out) lost their original focus on the disadvantaged, the key element of the American Head Start programme which was originally the model.
 
The increased formalisation of childcare and its orientation to an early years education agenda don’t necessarily square with the needs of the many parents who only use childcare for limited periods. Artificially increasing demand through ‘free’ hours while in effect reducing the supply of childcare – it is more and more difficult for less-qualified people, including those from minority and immigrant groups, to obtain work in the childcare sector – have driven up costs and made it more difficult for parents to find suitable provision.
 
Government policy on childcare has grown up through the influence of well-meaning and concerned politicians and interest groups. But as in many areas, good intentions don’t necessarily make good policy. It’s very difficult to step back from the entrenched positions which providers and advocates have taken, but we need to do so now before the cost spirals further out of control.

We need to ask exactly why the government needs to be so involved in the childcare and pre-school sector, and what are the best forms in which any necessary intervention should take place.

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