15 Dec 2014, Catherine Gaunt
Childcare has enjoyed a higher profile in this parliament than it has for nearly a decade. As politicians jockeyed to recapture the female vote, childcare became the 'go to' policy. But the focus of the debate shifted as the downturn dragged on from one balanced equally between child development and mothers' employment to one more squarely centred on easing the cost of living crisis. With that, the affordability of childcare came to dominate and the quality of childcare was too easily forgotten.
In spending terms also, childcare has been an undoubted winner. At a time of austerity, close to £1.5bn of extra investment has been found. Some of this is welcome - the extension of the two-year-old offer and additional support for childcare in Universal Credit. The biggest ticket item, however - tax-free childcare - is harder to celebrate. At a time of spending restraint, it provides support to some of the most affluent, further complicates childcare funding and provides no means by which Government can hold providers to account.
As we look forward to the next parliament, we can expect new policies. Labour will extend the free entitlement to 25 hours for working parents and push wraparound care for school-age children. The Lib Dems will extend the two-year-old offer to all children, while the Tories are sticking with tax-free childcare. But many of the fundamental questions about where we should be headed with childcare remain unanswered. No party has a serious proposal on quality and qualifications. No party has a proposal to simplify the current funding morass to get more value out of the investment already made. And there is still no clarity about whether we could make childcare more affordable by redirecting funding that currently goes to parents directly to providers.
The ten-year anniversary of the last childcare strategy has come and almost gone, with no attempt to re-establish a sense of direction for childcare policy. With fewer resources to spend in the next parliament, it will take a brave politician to address the vision question, but let's hope there is someone brave out there.