The government must invest in childcare or the early years sector will cost women their jobs

Date Posted: Tuesday 21st July 2020

The early years childcare sector is in crisis. The government must urgently address the looming crisis faced by childcare providers, employees and parents.

A report from Sutton Trust has found that 34% of nurseries in the most deprived areas and 24% in the least deprived areas are likely to close in the coming year. According to the report, 65% of parents are feeling stressed, worried and overwhelmed as a result of having no access to childcare.

Even before the Covid 19 crisis, the early-years childcare system was already not fit for purpose, with supply not keeping pace with demand. Only just over half (57%) of local authorities in England had enough childcare for parents who work full-time and just a fifth (22%) have enough for parents working atypical hours. Costs of childcare were spiralling. WBG research shows that even before the crisis, in England, childcare costs for a nursery place for a child under three absorbed between 45% and 60% of women’s annual salaries (full-time and part-time respectively). Comparison across western countries has shown that childcare costs of approximately 10% of net family income is optimal for supporting high levels of maternal employment.

Anxieties over childcare was a common theme among women Women’s Budget Group interviewed for a report published on the impact of Covid-19 on women in Coventry.  Women were facing huge pressures trying to continue with paid work while looking after children while nurseries were closed. And voluntary organisations and council officers warned of their fears if childcare providers failed just at the time that parents were expected to go back to work.

As Kevin Maton, Cllr for Education Coventry City Council attested; “the early years sector, we can’t guarantee them because, whether it’s community or private, if that goes out of business, that’s it. We’ve got to find a different provider to come in. So, it’s much more fragile. If we’re going to be able to help the economy take off again, then the childcare provision that comes with early years is absolutely crucial. If that capacity is gone, who’s going to take it up? It will be parents not going back to work.”

From the evidence so far on the impact of school and nursery closures it will be mothers in particular who can’t go back to work.

Research by IFS showed that mothers and fathers are spending the equivalent of an extra working week between them on childcare during lockdown. However, mothers are doing consistently more- 6 hours per day compared with 4 hours for fathers- regardless of the employment status of either parent. Mothers in 2-parent heterosexual households are more likely to have lost work or been furloughed during the crisis than fathers. 16% of mothers have permanently lost work (11% for fathers) and 34% have been furloughed (30% of fathers). Women already made up 69% of low paid, 74% of part-time and 54% of zero-hours workers. Before the crisis, mothers were in paid work at 80% of the rate that fathers were. During the crisis so far, it has already dropped to 70%. The current compounding of pre-existing gender pay gap means it is likely that a lack of affordable childcare will push parents into electing the mother to stay at home and look after the children.

Whilst the governments’ entitlement to 15 hours (30 for full-time earners) of free childcare for 38 weeks of the year introduced in 2017 offers some support, this falls far short of the true cost of childcare. Costs have routinely been passed on to parents in the form of inflated prices for younger children, and the additional care hours outside of the subsidised hours. The way it is structured also excludes the most disadvantaged families an those in a-typical shift work.

As the landscape of childcare changes over the coming months the government must act accordingly to protect the employment opportunities of mothers by prioritising the crisis in the early years sector. It must prevent an inevitable widening of the gender pay gap that would result from women staying at home due to unaffordable and oversubscribed childcare. The government must prioritise widescale investment in childcare.

However, government plans to create ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ to ‘build, build, build’ disappointingly relegates care to the side-lines, instead using this unique moment to push for greater investment in construction; an overwhelmingly male work sphere.

Largescale investment in childcare requires expanding public funding, recruiting, training and increasing pay for the care workforce. Affordable, high-quality childcare for all invests in future generations, leading to a better educated and healthier population. Investing in a care-led recovery is greener, creates 2.7 times more jobs than the equivalent in construction and reduces the gender employment gap.

The report published by the Women’s Budget Group uses Coventry as a field-site to highlight the current childcare crisis and consequent challenges women across the UK face as we come out of lockdown.

By Anna Johnston, Research Assistant at the Women’s Budget Group.

Covid- 19 report- The Impact on Women in Coventry is a report by the Women’s Budget Group and Coventry Women’s Partnership and is funded by the Smallwood Trust. It is the first ever in-depth analysis of the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on women in a particular city.