The government shows little sign of getting to grips with the childcare crisis that is seeing nursery workers leave the sector and female employers forced to give up work to care for children for financial reasons. Geraldine Gallacher explains why change is urgently needed
Prime minister Liz Truss’s ambition to make economic growth a top priority won’t be achievable until the government solves the current childcare crisis. As the shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson points out: “You can’t grow your economy unless you have the right support in place around childcare”.
After a decade of closing high quality, state-funded early years provision, the government’s gamble with childcare has failed. The private sector has not stepped in to make up the shortfall of places, resulting in a chronic shortage of affordable, quality childcare.
Accelerated by the pandemic, the sector-wide recruitment crisis is getting worse as qualified nursery workers leave for better paid supermarket jobs simply to survive rising living costs. And too few people are qualifying as nursery managers to replace those that have left or grow capacity.
Sufficient, affordable, quality childcare is a fundamental prerequisite for economic growth”
Solving the recruitment crisis has to be a top priority for government. Early years provision is regulated by minimum worker to child ratios which have been determined through rigorous research to deliver safe, quality care. Altering these ratios is not a solution. No parent wants to leave their baby or toddler in a setting where safety and care are compromised.
Childcare has become an unsustainable expense for parents. New analysis from Business in the Community shows nursery for under-twos costs parents in England 65% of their wage, rising to 71% for the east of England and inner London. Parents in Scotland spend 51% of their salary on childcare and 63% in Wales. One in 10 survey respondents said they were in £20,000 or more debt to pay for childcare.
Gender and diversity
Many dual-career couples will be having difficult conversations about whether they can both afford to work. The number of women not working to look after family has risen by 5% in the past year. This should serve as a red flag for employers working to increase gender equity.
Senior women talent pool
At a time when investors and clients are setting gender-balance expectations for those businesses they wish to invest in or do business with, the talent pool of potential women leaders has shrunk.
Women, specifically middle managers, the very cohort from which senior leaders and board members are promoted, were the largest group to exit the workforce during the pandemic. They left because it proved untenable to manage work with care responsibilities.
Best practice employers do understand the negative impact this is having on women’s careers. This week, for example, Sony Music UK announced a landmark policy that entitles parents to claim a significant financial contribution towards the cost of childcare for pre-schoolers.
While very welcome, employer-led initiatives should enhance not act as a substitute for a national solution. Sufficient, affordable, quality childcare is a fundamental prerequisite for economic growth and the full economic participation of women. Without an effective government-led solution, provision will remain piecemeal and patchy.
The new prime minister has said that an announcement on childcare reform is imminent. I fear that rather than restoring state investment in early years provision, (currently one of the lowest contributors among OECD countries), the government will push forward its proposal to increase child to carer ratios in England.
The government’s argument that ratios are higher in Scotland is irresponsible and dangerous. Under Scottish regulation, nursery managers are qualified to a higher level which research shows enables the nursery to operate a 5:1 ratio without compromising quality or care standards.
Not only will safety and quality be compromised but industry experts argue that parents are unlikely to see a reduction in fees as private nursery chains have an obligation to return a profit to shareholders. A lose-lose scenario for parents.
A free-market approach to the provision of early years care will not solve the childcare crisis. Quality childcare sets a child up for life. It’s time for the government to start listening to early years experts. The UK needs a modern childcare system. We cannot grow the economy without the right support around childcare.