Posted in: MAHM Submissions

The Affordable Childcare Committee was appointed on 12 June 2014 to consider and report on issues of childcare affordability.  Soon after, on 3 July, a call for evidence was published seeking oral and written submissions.  The Committee has been given a reporting deadline of 5 March 2015.

Areas of interest:
What does childcare cost? Is it worth the money we spend on it – as parents and as taxpayers? Is the main aim to promote child development or to enable parents to work? Could we be spending the money better? These are some of the questions at the heart of the inquiry by the House of Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare.

Chairman’s comment:
Chairman of the Committee, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, said:
“Thousands of parents all over the country struggle with decisions about childcare on a daily basis. However, with the Government subsidising childcare through free early education as well as tax credits and childcare vouchers, this isn’t just a matter for individual families. We need to ask, what is the main purpose of the Government subsidising childcare – is it to address inequalities in child development, or to help parents get back to work? And are those aims being met? If not, could the money be spent better in other ways to achieve those outcomes?
“We look forward to examining these important questions at the heart of the current debate on childcare policy. We would encourage anyone with relevant expertise or experience in these issues to submit evidence.”

1)    What should be the Public Policy Aims of State Intervention in Childcare?

MAHM Response:

At the heart of state intervention in childcare 0-5 years old should be what benefits the child, parents’ care preferences and family wellbeing.  The overwhelming priority for babies and children in childcare is to make them feel safe when parents are not close by, and to make as positive a contribution as possible to their developmental, relational and holistic needs.

Other factors such as parental employment patterns or ‘school-readiness’ must be secondary considerations and matters for further debate.  

Crucially, parents should not feel under undue social or financial pressure (or be incentivised) to use registered childcare before their child is ready.  

It should be possible for a child to be cared for at home if this is in his/her best interests and parents should be supported to provide family-based loving care where possible.  This will often be the mother in the early years, and increasingly fathers are primary caregivers, particularly when mothers’ earnings are higher and they want care to be home-based.  Parents are best placed to understand their children’s individual needs.  

It’s worth pointing out that the United Convention on the Rights of the Child describes the family as ‘the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of its members and particularly children’. Care patterns evolve over the course of family life and in the teenage years. A whole life cycle perspective is important and most people will both work and care in their lifetimes.

Childcare can provide vital assistance to parents when/if they need help with their children’s day to day care, and are not available to provide care themselves,  especially if grandparents are not in a position to lend a hand. Support also needs to be available for children with additional health or educational needs or who need support with English which may not be their first language.  We should therefore ensure high quality provision is in place, but this must be matched with more funding to support family based care.  Partnership with parents is vital.

 Children in childcare should have consistent key workers who are ‘in tune’ with their needs, who know them well and listen to what they say/communicate.  Staff should be carefully chosen for their knowledge and understanding, skills and experience.  

Children should be monitored carefully to see if they are coping well in childcare.  
 ‘Quality’ provision, from a child’s perspective, includes the importance of play and access to outdoor space and is also covered elsewhere in this document.  
Settings should be monitored for what is provided for children ‘in the moment’, so that they can enjoy today, not solely in term of outcomes in the future.   Schools should be ready for children rather than the other way round, because young children develop in different ways at different times, hence the way we talk about the ‘unique child’.  

Childcare– Babies – Toddlers – Pre-school – Reception class

When discussing childcare it should be clearer which age group is being referred to as this would improve general understanding and avoid any misunderstandings.  The developmental needs of babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers differ.  Policy aims for children aged 3, 4 and 5 yr olds, who have language skills and are more confident/ independent will be different from what’s required to support younger infants and babies.   All too often we read summary reports that group types of childcare together saying ‘Surveys show that childcare is better quality when… etc’,  without specifying the age group being talked about (0-2/3-5 yrs) or the kind of childcare setting.   

It can also be confusing that some surveys consider children to be in ‘childcare’ when cared for by a non-resident biological parent. It’s also not clear if subsidies are to be paid when EYFS – early education –  is not followed by some paid providers such as a nursery nurse.   

 If at all possible babies and toddlers should not be attending group settings for too long. There should be safeguards in place to ensure children gain maximum benefit from the setting, for example a cap on the length of the day.  There is no benefit to long hours and long days may be detrimental to childhood wellbeing. Parents should receive support to be at home or to have longer periods of leave from employment, especially mothers who are breastfeeding and feel strong attachment relationships to their infant, particularly in the period following birth.  Part time attendance is best for children  (EPPE).

All policies, including childcare, should be tested for their impact on family life.

We know the development and wellbeing of babies and young children is inextricably linked to family life and a loving home environment.  It’s well document that the childcare, education, role modelling and opportunities that parents themselves are able to provide are all key.  It follows that it’s essential for public policy aims in childcare to respect parents as first educators and be mindful of unintended consequences and the risk of undermining family life.  This might form part of a ‘family test’ David Cameron spoke about in mid August 2014.  

Care should be taken so that public policy in childcare is not prioritised over supporting parents in raising children, or that funding diverts resources away from supporting family life.  
Public policy support for ‘childcare’ should, first and foremost, assist parents with the considerable costs involved in raising young children, of which the ‘care’  element is only one part.  These are costs that single people and couples without children do not have to worry about.  Costs of raising a family are wide and varied, notably family housing/rent,  food, clothing, toiletries, books, educational experiences, transport, play etc    

Child allowances and family friendly taxation would help with family finances at home, recognising that all parents carry costs in raising children, not only families who need/choose to turn to registered provision.   Supporting families themselves to provide care would undoubtedly be more cost-effective than investing in the childcare sector with all the necessary regulation required. Care and supervision of children comes at a hefty price when provided by a parent (usually but not always the mother) who forfeits his/her entire salary for a period of time, however long or short. We often read that parents cannot ‘afford’  childcare,  but equally many parents feel they cannot ‘afford’ to provide care at home as it’s not supported in policy. Some countries offer home-care allowances,  income splitting or other incentives to help parents to afford parent-led-childcare and the take-up is good, benefitting children.

Public policy should respect family culture, parental care preferences and choice and commit to seek and hear the voices of parents at home

The DfE survey published in January 2014 said that of parents who had not used childcare in the last 12 months over 71 percent said it was because they preferred to look after their children themselves. Similarly, the ‘Britain Thinks’ report ‘Modern Families’ revealed that parents have a yearning for family life and for more family time and 81 % felt that in ideal circumstances one parents should stay at home to take care of children.
Public policies in childcare should not to favour one model of care over another.  Yet there is evidence that this is happening, and that it has little to do with affordability.   eg  if parents both work outside the home they benefit from two single person’s allowances in taxation and many have retained their child benefit on joint incomes of up to £100k, which can be diverted to childcare fees. 

Furthermore, many dual earning parents will soon be able to claim generous tax allowances on registered childcare on joint incomes of up to £300k. Meanwhile single earner families lose child benefit more quickly  (between £50k and £60K) and are penalised through having to pay twice as much tax on the same household income.  They also won’t be eligible for childcare tax allowances because both parents are not in paid work.   
We believe parents in a modern society should be free to divide work and care between them in the way that suits them best, without penalties.   The ‘modern’ pattern is the one that works for that family.
Better understanding of importance of Care and Early Years.  Policies should prioritise fair employment conditions and pay, as care – whether paid or invisible /unpaid is mainly carried out by women.  In equal societies caregiving should be equally valued.

Therefore an important aim of state intervention in childcare should be to support a professional , well qualified, well rewarded largely female workforce with good hourly rates of pay and clear pathways for career progression.  Staff should also have opportunities for further training.  It follows that caregiving at home should also be recognised equally. This is highly skilled work requiring a great deal of understanding of child development, knowledge of safeguarding, health and education.  The job description is long!

Compared to early years specialists in other countries and compared with staff working with older children,  early years staff are poorly treated in the UK .  It is now a priority for early years practitioners to be fairly rewarded.  David Cameron once pointed out that when a mother returns to work, using childcare, then two people are deemed to be working.  When a father or mother stays at home,  it makes little sense that no-one is considered to be working/contributing.  
2)    Does the provision of early education, for 3 and 4 year olds and some 2 year olds, improve outcomes for children?

MAHM Response:

First of all,  the term ‘improving outcomes’ needs to be treated with considerable caution.  The all-round development of the child needs to be taken into account. 

There is no clear evidence that more broadly defined outcomes are improved for all children through more formal learning in early life.  More-than-adequate social and emotional foundations,  essential for successful later school learning, are already effectively laid by an engaged, loving home family life,  which only those children from significantly deprived backgrounds are likely not to experience.   

Much depends on the starting point, the home environment, parents’ love and care, child’s unique needs and disposition, quality of settings, the skills, consistency and experience of staff and so on. There must be opportunities for learning through play and exploration, music, literature, counting, science, access to outdoor spaces, time and space for rest and peace and quiet.  All these things are also provided at home by thousands of parents up and down the country.

The EPPE study showed very little advantage in full time care over part time care for 3 and 4 year olds.

There is no space here for a detailed analysis of what constitutes ‘quality’ in early years settings, any more than consensus can be reached on meaning of  ‘outcomes’ – and this is outside the remit of this inquiry.  But it’s clear that relationships and good ratios are key.  Staff /educators/carers should demonstrate a good understanding of child development and early learning, be empathetic, patient, kind, caring and gentle. Management should seek to minimise staff turnover to ensure children experience consistency of care long term.  

The environment should encourage enjoyment of language through conversation, books, music and movement, although again most parents already provide ample opportunities for learning experiences at home and in the community.   In childcare there should be opportunities for extending knowledge and understanding in line with the EYFS Prime and Specific areas and with quality resources.   Physical development is important with opportunities for free play, fresh air, enjoyment of natural surroundings.   Children should feel valued and special, safe and happy, able to express themselves fully and with opportunities to extend their natural curiosity and imagination and make friendships.   

More attention needs to be paid to staff wellbeing and improving pay levels,  to attract skilled and experience practitioners with understanding of child development.

It is not clear that 2 year olds respond to childcare in the same way as 3 and 4 year olds.  They are often not yet secure in their toileting and are less independent. They are likely to find separation more challenging.  Whilst parents themselves can benefit from having friendly backup,  it’s important that the environment is tailored to the needs of 2 year olds,  small groups, more one-to-one care, or a home setting would be ideal with a childminder.  2 year olds will not benefit if poor setting and it should not be assumed that poverty at home means poverty of love and attention, or that poor parents do not read with their children and provide opportunities for play.

  1.  Is the provision of free early education the best way to address inequalities in child development among pre-school age children?

MAHM Response:

Funding for alternative care arrangements and free early education (childminder/nursery etc)  should be seen in the context of a wider more holistic package of support to alleviate the impact of income poverty and/or social disadvantage for the child and his/her family.   This includes health visiting, community support and support for parenting and relationships, but also recognising that welfare protection may be needed to protect household income and protect against family stress and family breakdown.  

Any benefit from childcare (to children) and returns on investment (through funding) can only be enhanced by a full range of different  services to protect and/or support children and parents, for example child allowances, and family friendly taxation (eg income splitting or transferable allowances that factors in the number of dependents being supported, perhaps taking parents out of tax altogether).  
At present there are plans to provide additional assistance in childcare funding to couples on joint incomes of up to £300,000 but more support should perhaps be diverted to families on low to middle incomes, who struggle to make ends meet on far lower pay.  

These days, even long working hours are not protection against poverty.
Costs in raising children which parents find particularly hard to meet include, for example,  housing/rent,  food, clothing, toiletries, transport.   Some charities such as Trussell Trust have risen to the challenge through provision of emergency food boxes. But, more can be done to help families and children, especially more investment in social housing, a cap on rents and investment in local communities.  

In reality childcare/nursery funding, however well intentioned,  will not necessarily be the most effective means of support, and may be difficult for some families to access (eg transport difficulties).  Funding should ‘follow the child’  and help them access play in different ways – whether at children’s centres, toddler groups or nursery – perhaps with volunteer support from charities such as Home -Start.   

Parents should have the opportunity to be fully involved in initiatives. For example when  2 year old childcare funding was first mooted, Frank Field spoke about welcoming the mother or father into settings to share in the child’s experiences and to continue with home learning, rather than seeking to lift children’s lives without fully factoring in parent-child relationships and family involvement.  

Most of the variance in children’s schooling outcomes is a result of social inequalities and would be more effectively addressed by macro social and fiscal policies aimed at lessening the increasing inequalities in society and child poverty levels.  

We welcome support for family relationships and hope that family breakdown might be prevented whenever possible, as children benefit from the involvement of mothers and fathers.   

  1.  Have state subsidies for childcare improved the ability of parents, and especially mothers to work?

MAHM Response:

There is possibly a link, in the same way as more support for home-based care leads to parents choosing to be at home  (eg Germany).  But what kind of work and at what cost to family life and childhood wellbeing? Many women’s care preferences are not being taken into account and their views are not taken seriously.   

Surveys reveal that many parents would prefer to look after their own children, as documented on our website and reported widely in the press.  Despite this, we know that policymakers remain keen to encourage both parents to be in employment and for households to contribute even more to GDP.  However this is not necessarily in the best interests of children nor does it take wider family circumstances into account.  Many part time second adults do not earn enough to pay tax.   In a competitive job market it’s important to weigh up whether there’s a ‘replacement’ factor –  and how many other groups, young adults,  single or retired people seeking employment,  would do those same jobs.  It’s not clear that having both parent in work when the children are young creates new jobs that can’t otherwise be filled,  except in the childcare sector.

  1.  Are state subsidies aimed at reducing the cost of childcare the best way to enable parents, and especially mothers, to work while their children are pre-school age?
  2. Response:

It’s worth noting that many parents say that they are not in employment,  not because of childcare but because of other factors such as complex family life or, crucially,  because they prefer to look after their children themselves (DfE ).

Some factors would help mothers into work when the time is right and children are older  (although teenagers also need support) – for example workplace flexibility,  levels of pay, better conditions and progression for part time employees, often women.  

The point is that looking after children at home is already work that needs doing  – it is valued at over £340 billion according to the ONS, but it is not included in GDP – and perhaps this is what needs to change.

Also, childcare provision does not guarantee access to suitable employment and the net gains are often small.  Indeed it may be more costly to the state to support the second parent into work and subsidise childcare for children of different ages, than to support him/her to be at home, if that is the preference.

Most parents dip in and out of work responding to changing family circumstances, led by the needs of their children but also by factors outside parents’ immediate control.  Just because the state makes childcare available to parents,  it does not mean they will be available to make use of it or that there will be employment opportunities.  Also, they may have other family commitments to meet for example to an elderly relative or sick child.  

Public policy for families should be flexible and responsive and channelled in more than one narrow direction. Rather than limited to offering registered childcare, it should recognise the dynamics of modern family lives, and complexity of care and employment patterns.
6)    What does childcare cost?  How affordable is it?  

MAHM Response:

According to the DfE survey of Childcare and Early Years almost half of parents (49%) said it was easy or very easy to meet their childcare costs with a substantial minority (27%)  finding it difficult or very difficult to pay (33% said it was neither easy or difficult).

It seems reasonable to say  that ‘affordability’ is subjective and depends not only on how much is paid,  but other factors such as size of the mortgage, other commitments, levels of debt and number of children.  Some parents also benefit from assistance from grandparents which eases the financial strain.  Some parents on very high incomes say they cannot ‘afford’ childcare, whilst others on lower income say costs are manageable.

  1.  What is driving trends in childcare costs?

MAHM Response:

Possibly this is in line with general increases in costs of living – increases in costs of goods and materials, rent of premises and need for staff wages to be maintained/increased in order to attract quality practitioners.   

  1.  What is the cost to the state of subsidising childcare?     £7b has been quoted   (IFS).
  2.  Does the current level of subsidy represent value for money when assessed against a) outcomes for children and b) enabling parents to work?

MAHM Response:

Some of the funding currently spent by govt  on childcare could be diverted to
support parents in raising their children through fair family taxation and allowances, including protection for child benefit.   The additional disposable income could be used as parents see fit, including paying for childcare if that is their choice.   Some parents might decide that their preference is to use the money to subsidise childcare at home, to make up for the loss of income, or to help pay for other household expenses.

  1.  Not answered  (relating to early years sector and supply side or demand side funding)
  2.  What lessons can be learnt from international examples,  or from the devolved administrations, of how childcare is provided, funded and evaluated?

MAHM Response:

The UK is unique in not recognising the costs to families of  care responsibilities at home and not to factor in number of dependents supported on family  income, for example through fairer family taxation and allowances, or through home care allowances.    The starting point should be to look at international examples of how family life is supported generally, before exploring childcare in particular. Policy initiatives must be put in context of wider support for families and the wider costs that families face eg housing.

References:   DfE Survey of Childcare and Early Years 2014
Britain Thinks report on Modern Families commissioned by Labour

Background:  The Mothers at Home Matter website, run by volunteers, contains detailed information about our campaign to support family life and to have the costs that all parents bear in  ‘raising children’ (meeting their basic needs as well as the costs of caring for them ) fully recognised in our social and economic systems.   MAHM is not affiliated to any political or religious organisation and is not for profit.   Members come from a diverse range of backgrounds, with different experiences and a range of beliefs.  We represent people who have different working and marital status at different stages of the family life cycle  Supporters come together to stand up for family life and especially for children’s developmental needs and because they want to see ‘motherhood’  celebrated and respected equally, just as fatherhood is also important.

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