Childcare policy is the government's latest big idea. But Labour's stress on pushing mothers back to work is being questionedby Katharine Quarmby / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
For the first time in British history, childcare is a big political issue. It has been one of New Labour’s big ideas throughout both its terms. The prime minister has associated himself closely with the project, pledging to end child poverty by 2020 and launching the flagship Sure Start initiative, designed to give disadvantaged children a better start. The 1998 national childcare strategy was based on the belief that high quality childcare would help to educate and socialise young children, and also make it easier for parents, especially mothers, to combine child rearing and paid employment. In addition it was hoped that Britain’s welfare bill, particularly for lone parents, would be reduced. But what has actually happened to childcare in the past five years – and what effect have the changes had on employment and welfare bills? Is it really best for young mothers to return to work as soon as possible, as Labour childcare reformers often imply? Labour’s strategy has coincided with a new wave of research in this politically and emotionally tangled area, which in some cases has questioned Labour’s stress on encouraging young mothers back to work. Recent history of childcare In 1997, Britain’s childcare provision was among the worst in the developed world. Fewer than one in eight children under the age of eight had access to a place in a private or state nursery. But the issue was rising up the political agenda. In the mid-1990s, the Conservatives invented nursery education vouchers. Because there were not enough state nursery school places it was hoped the vouchers would stimulate private sector supply. But they implemented the scheme only weeks before the 1997 election, and the new government repealed it immediately. Labour’s public sector-based strategy was carefully prepared before the election. This was partly thanks to a little known umbrella group – the Early Childhood Education Forum – which influenced two education ministers, Estelle Morris and Margaret Hodge. Gillian Pugh, director of the Coram Family charity and an architect of Sure Start, persuaded the 40-plus lobby groups in the field to combine to argue for the same broad ideas. Labour’s strategy had two planks. First, a big expansion of state-funded childcare and early years education – meaning crêches and then nurseries for those up to four years and mainly after-school clubs for school age children – making it more accessible and user-friendly for all parents, especially those at the bottom of the pile. Second, lifting barriers to work by reforming the tax and benefits system. The government can point to some advance. By 2005-06, expenditure on early years education and childcare will have tripled to ?1.5bn a year since 1997. In just over five years, almost 350,000 extra childcare places have been created, bringing the total in England to 985,400. Ofsted’s latest figures show that formal childcare is now available for one in five children under eight – up from one in eight in 1997. (The total number of pre-school children in England and Wales is 3.1m, the number between five and eight is 2.6m.) By September next year, all three and four year olds will have access to free nursery education – albeit for just two and a half hours a day. After-school clubs (heavily subsidised) have increased from 3,500 to 7,000 and now provide 240,000 places in England. In the day care sector, nursery places have increased by more than a third since 2001 alone, providing over 360,000 places in England – 90 per cent in the private sector. But Labour’s most ideologically branded initiative is Sure Start. Launched five years ago, it is one of the boldest ever attempts to change the lives of children living in poverty. Sure Start’s initial aims were to intervene early in the lives of poor children – from health to reading skills – and to improve parenting. More recently, it has shifted its focus to lifting families out of poverty by getting mothers back to work. Labour wants to get 70 per cent of lone parents into work by 2010. Sure Start is based in the 20 per cent most deprived wards in the country, places where the market does not provide affordable childcare. Parents are consulted about the kinds of services they want and then a partnership of local groups, led by an NHS primary care trust, a single regeneration body, a local authority or a voluntary organisation, steers the programme through. By the end of this year over 500 Sure Start programmes will be established, reaching up to 400,000 children. Each one is different – the emphasis depends on the lead agency and parents wishes – but all offer childcare, training and parenting classes. Devolution of control over how the money is spent was one of Sure Start’s most original features and is now being copied by other public programmes. Norman Glass, the former treasury official who was another Sure Start architect, says that it has less of the “being done to” and more of the “being done by” approach. “I spent 20 years of my life trying to make people feel better about being poor. It never occurred to me that I could help lift them out of poverty. That is what we are trying to do here,” says Naomi Eisenstadt, director of the Sure Start unit, a cross-departmental body responsible for all childcare, early years education and Sure Start projects. The idea of a “one-stop shop” of children’s services is based on pioneering projects like the Thomas Coram community campus in London’s deprived Kings Cross, where Tony Blair launched Sure Start five years ago. The Thomas Coram nursery is as good as any nursery gets. It has six rooms – two for each year group up to age three – so the children are in small groups at all times. Its doors open on to a garden and there is a covered wet weather play area. You couldn’t pay for childcare this good in the private sector – the nursery is heavily subsidised, costing Camden council twice as much as it charges parents. Child to adult ratios are low, and staff are well trained. When I ask about the ethos of the nursery, the deputy head alludes to three or four different influences, including Montessori and heuristic play. Child psychologists are on hand, as are social workers and speech therapists. The start-up budget for the first 250 Sure Start programmes was ?452m – roughly ?1.8m each – over three years. Most of that has been spent but an extra ?580m has now been guaranteed up to March next year. Not everyone believes it is a good use of resources. One childcare expert said that although it is popular with parents no consideration had been given as to whether alternative uses for the money might have a beneficial impact on a larger number of children. “It makes people feel warm, but it can lack rigour,” she added. Norman Glass has also expressed doubts about the training and employment elements of the initiative arguing that the emphasis on promoting parents’ employment detracts from the original aim of improving parenting. Many of the initial targets set for programmes are not being reached. There is also the problem of ward boundaries: equally disadvantaged families who live just outside a chosen ward can only look on enviously as others across the road qualify for high quality free support. What about the rest of us? In any case, Sure Start is still small. Margaret Hodge, the minister for children, admits that by 2006 the programme will only be catering for around half the children living in poverty in target areas. The great bulk of lower and middle-income families, meanwhile, continue to juggle childcare through a combination of family members and the private sector. Only about 0.2 per cent of families with children employ nannies (there are about 120,000 working in Britain according to the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses). Private nurseries are now the fastest growing small business sector in Britain, up by over a third since 2001 to around 10,000, but even these are too expensive for most families. The average cost of nursery care for a child under two is over ?6,500 a year in England, rising to over ?8,000 in the southeast – far more than most households spend on housing and food. With a second child, the bill is higher and it can be cheaper to employ a nanny. There are also doubts about the quality of some group childcare. A department of education-funded project, Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE), awarded the 20 state nursery schools it studied the best scores; the 31 private day nurseries and 34 playgroups received much lower scores. The 24 local authority day centres, run by social services, also had only adequate scores. Public sector provision is growing, but is still patchy and may be flattered by the figures. The Ofsted numbers on formal childcare include the free nursery places for four year olds (and soon three year olds) paid by local authorities but offered by a range of providers. But these consist of just five two and a half hour sessions a week – only enough time to cover the most part-time of jobs. Moreover, there are doubts about the durability of some public sector provision. It is claimed, for instance, that places in after-school clubs have trebled since 1997. But one expert said, “After-school clubs are easy to set up. There are usually no capital costs and the adult to child ratio is quite good – about one to eight – but they tend to fold because it is easier to get start-up money than cash to keep them going.” For pre-school children, one of the alternatives to expensive private nurseries is childminding – trained childcare workers looking after a small group of children in their homes. But the number of childminders has actually been falling, from 106,000 in 1992 to 76,000 in 2000. Gill Haynes of the National Childminding Association blames low pay and newspaper scare stories. Childminding is a slightly more affordable option for parents – on average about ?118 a week compared to ?128 for nurseries – and the government is promoting it. But there are problems. Childminders are allowed to look after up to six children under eight, including their own, and up to three children under five – a handful even for a mother, who has what Jay Belsky of Birkbeck College calls “maternal devotion on her side.” Also, childminders remain the least qualified group of childcare workers: they can start working after a 12-hour training course in childminding and a first aid certificate. With private care either too expensive or insufficiently trusted and very limited state provision, many parents lean heavily on the so-called informal sector – meaning the parents themselves, friends and, above all, grandparents. A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that almost two thirds of pre-school children and over three quarters of school-age children are looked after informally. Britain’s reliance on informal childcare is being analysed in Oxford University’s Families, Children and Childcare project, a seven-year study of 1,200 children. The study has found that in the first year or two, informal care is the norm for most children. “Where grandmothers are the carers, the average weekly hours of care that they are giving to children under 18 months is 30-35 hours. Yet some are doing this reluctantly, and many are getting very tired,” says Penelope Leach, one of the principal investigators. The working mother dilemma But childcare policy is not just a question of economics. The unprecedented advancement in the status and formal employment of women in the past 40 years has thrown up many hotly disputed and emotionally charged questions. How special is the role of the mother as primary carer compared with the father or with group care? Do children fare better when cared for by their own mother for the first year or more? What can be expected of men in terms of household and childcare duties to relieve working mothers from their “double shift?” Until recently, the general assumption of both the feminist left and the economics-based policymaking establishment was that getting mothers out of the home and into the labour market as swiftly as possible was an unqualified good both for their equality with men (the feminists) and their contribution to economic growth (the economists). But several writers, such as Shirley Burggraf in her book The Feminine Economy and Economic Man, have drawn attention to how this approach downplays and devalues the informal, caring function of (mainly) women in the private economy – work which is not captured by economic statistics and which does not count towards GDP. In a low-wage, high-employment economy like Britain, many women must return to work soon after childbirth to prevent a sharp decline in their household income. And paid work can, of course, help lift families out of poverty – but at what price to the child and the overstretched mother? Doubts are now being expressed over whether exhorting mothers to go back to work soon after childbirth is a good idea. Penelope Leach says childcare policy “should not only be about helping parents; it should be about putting children first. I am not convinced that the government has got the emphasis right.” Leach acknowledges that it is not ideal for a parent to be at home reluctantly, but says most parents do want to spend more time with their children. Some recent research indicates that group care adversely affects the behaviour of very young children. The EPPE study found that, “High levels of group care before the age of three (particularly before the age of two) are associated with higher levels of antisocial behaviour at age three.” Jay Belsky at Birkbeck, who first highlighted the negative effects of long hours in day care back in 1986, says that investigators still do not understand why group care can have this result. EPPE also has bad news for Sure Start. The authors found that, “Disadvantaged children do better in settings with a mixture of children from different social backgrounds, rather than in settings containing largely disadvantaged groups. This has implications for the siting of centres in areas of social disadvantage.” Belsky is one of the principal investigators on the other major research study which has cast doubt on group care for the very young, commissioned by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in the US. A researcher on the study told me that the findings on the effect of day care on young children were so controversial that the investigators thought long and hard before publishing them. “The bad news for parents is that the same effects are there whether your child is there for a few hours or 40. But any reduction in hours will have a payoff, just as any increase will be bad.” Belsky does not believe that the results mean that mothers should always stay at home and look after their children. “We can’t be prescriptive, but we need to balance the downsides of early childcare against the upsides of children having parents working and therefore not living in poverty. It’s a dilemma… and one that the government acknowledges. How do we limit group arrangements for the first 24 months of life while promoting employment?” Another large study, funded by the department for education and carried out by researchers at Bristol University, suggests that mothers who return to full-time work before their children are 18 months old may inadvertently be harming them. The Bristol report expressed particular concern about the use of informal, unpaid care in order to secure full-time maternal employment. Like Belsky, the authors say that extending maternal leave and encouraging flexible working practices would minimise these problems. The dilemma about how much to work and what kind of care to secure for one’s child is sharpest for lone parents. The government aims to increase employment among lone parents to 70 per cent by 2010. It hopes that this will contribute to eliminating child poverty by 2020. Nearly a quarter of all families in Britain are headed by a lone parent and over half of them are classified as poor. Employment rates among lone mothers with small babies is just 16 per cent. The government made itself very unpopular with one-parent families by cutting their benefits when it first came into office. It insists, however, that it has no plans to force lone parents into work. And the New Deal for lone parents, which gives parents personal advisers, is popular. The government claims that by getting lone parents off welfare and into employment, it has saved the economy as a whole ?115m. About 90 per cent of the recipients of the childcare element of Gordon Brown’s working tax credit – which pays 70 per cent of childcare costs up to a maximum of ?140 a week – are lone parents. A cluster of problems has emerged around eligibility, qualifying hours, administrative delays and the loss of other benefits such as free school meals and council tax reductions. But by autumn last year, 54 per cent of lone parents were working – up from 46 per cent in 1997. Nevertheless, many observers think it unlikely the 70 per cent target will be reached. This is no bad thing, according to the Coram Family charity, which says that most mothers want to care for their babies themselves in the first year and that pressure on young single mothers to study or work, on top of everything else, may overwhelm them. Even lone parents with older children have qualms about working long hours. Kate Green, director of One Parent Families, says that lone parents “feel that they have to face both ways. They are told that they should be in work, but they are also blamed if their children are unruly because they are not at home.” Naomi Eisenstadt, director of the Sure Start unit, does concede that her schemes can overemphasise the importance of getting poorer parents into work, especially given that many jobs are badly paid and low skilled. “Computer training and literacy may be more appropriate in some instances than a job stacking shelves,” she says. But, she points out, “When the parents get jobs, the kids get to school on time.” How they do it in other countries Labour has made much of its help for childcare conditional on finding a job. Many experts argue that childcare should instead be seen as a universal, public good. In many European countries, childcare is not seen as a private arrangement, but as the beginning of a child’s socialisation and education. There is also a growing recognition that making it hard for women to combine child rearing with decent jobs contributes to rapidly falling birth rates. While Labour has increased the amount Britain spends on early years education, it is still low compared with other EU countries. Britain spends 0.3 per cent of GDP on early childhood services, compared to 2 per cent in Sweden. However, the issue is not just about funding – it is also about legal regulation. Most other countries in Europe have stronger rights to parental leave as well as high levels of childcare subsidy. Almost all have linked early childcare into the school system, so that children start kindergarten at three and go on until six or seven, when they enter school. Sweden recently took an important decision to extend parental leave for the first year of a child’s life and to cease funding childcare for children under 12 months. While mothers initially stay at home for longer, the right to work part-time – a six-hour day while your child is at school – means that most parents do return to work. Around three quarters of children use public sector services and parents pay for less than a fifth of the total costs. Similar policies operate in other Scandinavian countries and contribute to the highest maternal employment rates in the EU. In France, jobs must be held open for three years, mothers are given at least 16 weeks of maternity leave and the highly rated ?les maternelles take children from three (and often two) onwards. All staff are trained for at least a year; many staff have undergone nursing training or a full childcare degree. Britain, by contrast, has the least qualified childcare workforce in the EU. The Swedish model – a parent (invariably the mother) staying at home for the first year of life, the right to part-time work, excellent publicly funded early years education – looks very attractive. Something like this model is what most British childcare experts would prefer. They also suggest that childcare workers should be well trained and better paid, with the same status as teachers. The consensus is that where group care is necessary for very young children, the groups should be small and each child should have a “key worker.” There should be a children’s centre in every neighbourhood. All of this would, of course, be hugely expensive – if Britain spent as much on each pre-school child as Sweden, it would add around ?16bn to public spending. Britain is not going to get the Swedish model; at least not in the forseeable future. But in April this year the British government did introduce the flexible working regulations, giving working parents the right to ask to work part-time. The employee can be refused but the employer has to explain why, and the employee can then appeal to an employment tribunal. The equal opportunities commission says that calls to its helpline about flexible working issues have doubled since the regulations came into force. Nearly a fifth of the calls are from men wanting to find out what their new rights are. Yet the commission also says that many calls come from parents whose requests to work flexibly are being turned down. In April the government also extended statutory maternity leave to 26 weeks. Most new mothers can now expect to receive 90 per cent of their earnings for six weeks, followed by ?100 a week for the remaining 20. (Even fathers now get two weeks of paid paternity leave.) Most mothers with young babies say they would then prefer to work part-time for anything from a few months to several years, especially if they have several children. But in the real world of work, it is still difficult to work part-time and be taken seriously. When I conducted interviews with more than 50 working parents at a major broadcasting organisation, few of them seemed content. The parents who worked part-time were happier with their work-life balance but worried that they were missing out on promotions and pay increases. The parents who were working full-time were mostly very dissatisfied with their work-life balance. One father said: “Of course the hours I work affect my relationship with my children. When working more than 50 hours a week, I am usually not around for bedtimes, and when I am around I am so tired that I often snap at them.” British fathers work the longest hours in Europe but recent surveys show very clearly that they want to be more involved in bringing up their children. Perhaps British fathers will be the key to an informal British solution. Women do not want to give up the right to work, but they do want to see their children. If grandparents are unable to shoulder the burden, the obvious choice is the father. For middle-class couples, two parents working four days a week have a greater chance of sustaining their careers (and marriages) than one parent who has to drop down to two or three days a week and one parent working far more than 35 hours a week. This also means that the child only needs formal childcare three days a week, greatly reducing childcare bills. Childcare gradualism The private sector and the extended family will continue to dominate childcare provision. But the more vocal demands of women who want, or need, to combine work and motherhood mean that government is playing more of a part – in legislating to make the work-life balance easier for parents, in providing free, high quality care for poor parents, and some public support for the majority. The long hours culture will continue to be a problem. But given Britain’s relatively deregulated economy, the government can only nudge on this. Parents need to make their own choices, even when it means financial sacrifice. Men need to act on the desires they express in surveys to spend more time with their children and become a bigger part of the childcare solution. And society as a whole – perhaps one day even economic statisticians – needs to place a higher value on the caring work done mainly by mothers in the first years of a child’s life.