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More markets won’t solve the crisis in childcare

This article is over 9 years, 7 months old
Siân Ruddick takes a look at the state of childcare services in Britain—and explains why new government proposals mean more misery for parents
Issue 2305
Parents and workers marched in Hampshire last year to defend SureStart nurseries  (Pic: Chris Price)
Parents and workers marched in Hampshire last year to defend SureStart nurseries (Pic: Chris Price)

Childcare services are a necessity for millions of parents in Britain. Without childcare they could not go to work.

But the costs of childcare are rising and the logistics are getting more complex. This is making it harder for parents—and for women in particular—to hold down a paid job.

The government pays for childcare for children between the ages of three and when they go to school—but only for 15 hours a week.

So parents usually have to “top up” those hours with expensive private care. A nursery place for a child under two costs on average £5,100 a year.

At the root of the problem is the way successive governments in Britain have allowed the private sector free reign in the childcare sector. The state has almost totally withdrawn from providing care directly.

This process started in earnest with New Labour’s Childcare Act of 2006. It specified that state or local authority childcare provision can only be provided as a last resort if there is no private alternative.

The resulting marketisation of childcare has triggered a crisis. There is a shortage of affordable places. Parents, most often women, are having to leave work because they cannot cover spiralling childcare costs.

But the push towards providing childcare through the market started in 1997 when Labour was elected.

Tony Blair’s government brought in a “tax credits” system that subsidised some of people’s childcare costs. But the childcare itself would be provided by private companies rather than directly.

Eva Lloyd is an academic specialising in early childhood at the University of East London. She spoke to Socialist Worker about the problems of relying on private childcare.

“In some places there’s a lot of competition between childcare providers,” she said. “But in other more deprived areas there is less provision—so there are fewer places for children.”

Save the Children has shown that the high cost of day care coupled with cuts in tax credits has forced one in four low-paid parents to leave work.


Now even the Tories have had to admit there’s a problem. The government released a report last week acknowledging the crisis in childcare.

But its solution is more of the same—removing regulations to encourage more private childminders.

Conservative MP Liz Truss, the report’s author, also suggests that nurseries and children’s centres should be able apply for “academy” status to free them from local authority control.

But marketisation and privatisation have led to the current crisis. Online parents’ forums are full of horror stories.

“Our local council has actually cut nearly all of our subsidised schemes for 5-12 year olds,” one testimony reads. “So parents have to either cram in to large schemes that cater for 50 children or more, or pay out lots of money.”

And it’s getting worse. Childcare is seen as an easy target for cuts by both local and national government.

One typical cut is to remove supervisors from council-owned play spaces where primary school children can go after school. These cuts mean the play spaces can no longer be used as supervised childcare. Working parents are forced to pay for after school clubs and child minders instead.

Some 83 percent of local authorities in England have slashed their children’s centre budgets—the average cut has been 21 percent. The largest cut was in Hull, where the Labour-run council took 56 percent off its childcare provision budget last year.

British childcare costs are among the highest in the world, outranked only by Switzerland and the US.

Childcare in Britain costs around a quarter of household income. This is more than double the average rate among the richer OECD nations.

Again the online testimony is stark. One woman described working 20 hours a week and earning just £50 after she’d paid for childcare.

Another calculated that childcare and travel cost her £73 every day she went in to work.

Local authorities are obligated by law to provide free places. But Daycare Trust and other charities say that these government-funded hours are hard to track down.

One government website recommends the Family Information Service for advice on childcare provision and entitlement.

But look up their “information line for parents” and you are told: “We can no longer provide a telephone information service due to the funding being withdrawn.”

Heavy burden of care costs

One in four parents in severe poverty have given up work and one in three have turned down a job because of high childcare costs.

The average family with two salaries spends 27 percent of its income on childcare. And 63 percent of all parents say they struggle to pay for childcare.

Devon to farm out its services

When NHS Devon and Devon County Council sought to outsource frontline children’s services in March of this year, their preferred bidders were profit-making private companies Serco and Virgin Care.

The bids are for a three year contract worth £130 million. This covers some of the most sensitive care for highly vulnerable children and families.

The contract covers child protection services, treatment for mentally ill children and adolescents, therapy and respite care for those with disabilities, health visiting, and palliative nursing for dying children.

Busy Bees are rolling in honey

Busy Bees owns 149 nurseries across Britain, making it the largest childcare provider. The firm has an expansion strategy based on buying up smaller childcare companies.

Busy Bees now has a £90 million turnover and is responsible for the care of around 7,500 children. Last year it raked in £6.7 million in profits.

Mothers taking less skilled jobs

A poll of 1,600 part-time working mothers by the Resolution Foundation found almost half on low-to-middle incomes had taken up a less skilled job when they returned to work after giving birth.


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