A child-first strategy for childcare

Childcare has two key functions: to enhance child well-being and boost development, and to increase the hours that parents (especially mums) can work. However, there is often an uneasy tension between these two objectives, with the latter often taking precedence over the former.

  • Costs. Studies show that childcare is expensive in the UK. In April 2011, the government changed the rules for working parents who are now able to claim only 70% of childcare costs up to a specified ceiling (the previous rule paid 80% of costs). Parents must cover any shortfall themselves, which, given the high costs of childcare in the UK, is often prohibitive.
  • Quality. The UK has invested substantially in childcare provision over the last decade and as a result, many more parents (especially lone parents) have been able to work. However, the quality of childcare and the low pay of childcare workers remain an ongoing concern. Provision for those working atypical hours, and for children with high caring needs such as children with disabilities is patchy at best.
  • Missing out on the benefits of early care and education. Targeting financial support for childcare via working tax credit (and in the future via universal credit) reinforces the message that childcare is primarily designed to enable parents to work. This may exclude the most disadvantaged children whose parents are not in work, and who would benefit most from high-quality interventions.
  • Irregularity. Linking childcare to work means that as parents move in and out of employment their children move in and out of childcare. This is stressful for parents and damaging for children. In addition, childcare providers are susceptible to changes in demand, resulting in the frequent closure of schemes and less availability in deprived areas.

The current government has indicated that expanding childcare for low income families remains a priority.

But at CPAG, we believe that if childcare provision is to support the 2020 agenda, it must be scaled up, focus more closely on the needs of all children, and provide consistent and high quality support that is accessible to all.