As the parties fall over themselves in a last-minute attempt to woo women voters, childcare is finally being recognised as the salient political issue it should always have been. It is, after all, 2015. Not only does childcare promote gender equality and economic growth by facilitating women’s employment, it educates children and provides them with essential opportunities to socialise with their peers.
These benefits hinge on the quality of the services provided, however. As the parties have moved into a superficial bidding war about who will provide the largest quantity of free hours, this issue seems to have been overlooked. They have paid little attention to how these free hours will actually be provided given the current challenges facing the sector.
Currently in England, children aged three and four (and some two-year-olds) are entitled to 15 hours of free childcare per week (there are similar initiatives in Scotland and Wales). In its manifesto, Labour proposed an extension to 25 hours per week for three and four-year-olds as well as more breakfast and afterschool clubs for school-aged children.
The Liberal Democrats intend to widen eligibility for the current 15 free hours to all two-year-olds and, for working parents, to provide free childcare from nine months (the end of parental leave) to two years. They also support a further increase in the number of hours per week to 20.
Not to be outdone, the Conservatives have proposed to increase provision of free childcare for three and four-year-olds to 30 hours per week by 2017, but only for parents in employment. The Greens propose a fully comprehensive system of early education and care from birth to school age. Even UKIP plans to increase school-age care. Both the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru also support additional free early education and care services.
Capacity for expansion?
While support for public funding of childcare across all the major UK parties is to be applauded, the question remains whether any of these parties are fully prepared to fund childcare in a way that meets the needs of parents, children and providers. Recent experience with expansions to the free entitlement under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition gives cause for concern in this regard.
While the number of children taking up free places in nurseries has increased since 2010, expenditure has fallen. The majority of children under school-age receive their free childcare from private and voluntary providers. Yet recent reports have documented that these providers currently face a shortfall between the cost it takes to deliver each free childcare place and the funds they receive to do so.
To stay in business, they have to make up this shortfall through the fees they charge parents for additional hours. Doubling the number of free childcare hours without increasing the funding per place exacerbates the problem and could put providers into extreme financial difficulty.
Without sufficient funding, it will be difficult for providers to maintain let alone raise the quality of the service they provide. Quality in the sector is already an issue, as the recent expansion of eligibility to a group of disadvantaged two-year-olds highlighted. A report published by the Sutton Trust advised delays to the roll-out for two-year-olds precisely due to a shortage of sufficiently high quality places.
Expanding the number of free hours of childcare could be a great benefit to both parents and children. But the politicians need to pay greater attention to the challenges of implementation. Successful expansion in practice will likely require additional funding to meet current costs of delivery and to attract and train qualified staff. Otherwise, in the push to expand capacity rapidly, service standards may fall.