Childcare concerns us all
Date Posted: Monday 15th November 2021
“Have you ever used childcare?”
This was the icebreaker question opening ‘Fixing a broken childcare system’, an Ella Baker School of Organising event that could not have been timelier.
Answers appeared in rapid succession: “Yes”, “Never”, “Sometimes”, “Grandma looks after the kids”.
The host paused briefly before delivering the statement that shook us out of any possibility of complacency:
“We all have used childcare.” Someone had taken care of us when we were at our most vulnerable age.
It is interesting how a statement like this can shift your own narrative. Until that moment, my experience of childcare felt like that of an outsider to the system; someone who has, on occasion, stepped in when a colleague suddenly needs to leave to pick up their kid from nursery because of a tummy bug. It made me realise I knew very little about the care I had received during my first years of life, and how it affected those around me.
Reflecting on my experiences as a child and and the situation now, the “patchwork quilt” of care that I received has not changed. For many people, childcare consists of a complex web of formal and informal support stitched together daily and at ever increasing cost, with mothers still bearing the brunt of caregiving and care organising. In contrast, there have been important changes in the labour market, which put significant stress on the patchwork of care on offer. In my lifetime, the proportion of mothers in full- or part-time work has increased, from 50% in 1975 to 72% in 2015.(1) This rise is notable among single mothers and mothers of small children.
“Nursery fees for a child under two in my borough amount to around 66% of women’s full-time earnings”
Despite this unprecedented change, our society has yet to provide a childcare system that gives adequate support to ALL parents, guardians and children, not just to those who can afford paid care. And paid care is costly indeed. The cost of childcare in the UK is among the highest in OECD countries, yet ranks a lowly 34 out of 50 for quality: hardly world class.(2) Using data from a childcare survey run in 2021 by the children’s charity Coram (3), national income data and a FOI request to my local borough council (Richmond upon Thames in London), I learned that nursery fees for a child under two in my borough amount to around 66% of women’s full-time earnings, growing to a massive 80% of earnings for those working part-time. In stark contrast, women working full-time in Sweden, where childcare costs are similar to the UK, spend only 3% of their earnings on childcare. (4)
Childcare in the UK is unsustainable, and this has become increasingly obvious. Recently, more than 100,000 people signed a petition to the Government asking it to commission an independent review of childcare funding and affordability. (5) The petition was rejected. The Government responded that there were no plans to review funding, and made no comment on whether the existing provision was suitable for 21st century life. Instead, they emphasised the “free” childcare already available in England: 15 hours per week for 38 weeks of the year for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and 2-year-olds from disadvantaged families, and 30 hours per week for 3- and 4-year-olds of “eligible” working parents. There is no universal funding for children under 2, and the “free” childcare the Government refers to is not, by any working parent’s reckoning, enough to cover typical part-time working hours, let alone full-time. These and other gaps in the system continue to be covered from earnings, even after adding in tax-free childcare, universal and tax credits. Low-income families are hit the hardest.
When an issue of such importance gets overlooked by the central Government, we need to consider the alternatives. A good place to start is our local community. Currently, Women’s Equality Party (WEP) Richmond is engaging with residents to raise awareness of the unacceptably high costs of childcare. It is also providing a space in which discussions can take place and the status quo challenged, with initiatives such as linking childcare with flexible working spaces and community hubs. In July this year, WEP Richmond hosted an open meeting for parents, childcare providers and the local authority to listen to each other’s concerns and share ideas for change. Providers were as alarmed as parents at the costs. We also heard from providers trying to offer childcare in locations nearer to work, public transport or high streets yet struggling with business regulations, and their continued attempts to engage the local authority in their proposals for alternative care models. There are ideas for change.
The stakes were high when I received care as a child, and I am deeply grateful to my family, neighbours and the nursery staff who looked after me. Today, the stakes remain high. How childcare is provided is influenced by culture, social change and economic policy. It is about the world we want to create. We need to have a much wider debate on what that means. We can engage in existing conversations or start new ones in our communities. Many organisations, including WBG and WEP, are doing this right now. Will you join us? After all, we all use and deserve the best childcare.
Eliana Reyes-Torres MD PhD
The author attended a Local Data Project workshop
run by the Women’s Budget Group
- Roantree, B and Vira, K., ‘Institute for Fiscal Studies Briefing Note 234: The rise of women’s employment in the UK’
- Hall, M and Stephens, L., ‘New Economics Foundation Report 2020: Quality childcare for all: making England’s childcare a universal basic service’
- Jarvie, M, Shorto, S. and Parlett, H., ‘Coram Family and Childcare: Childcare Survey 2021’
- Swedish National Mediation Office and Statistics, Swedish National Agency for Education, accessed 13 July 2021