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Families want a reliable, affordable childcare system – the next government must prioritise that if it wants to boost the economy

Sarah Ronan, Director of the Early Education and Childcare Coalition

In recent years we’ve seen childcare reform climb the political agenda, and quite rightly. Not only does childcare support parents to work today, but it also provides vital early education that supports children to develop into the citizens of tomorrow, something we all have a stake in.

It’s been well-documented that parents in the UK pay some of the highest childcare fees in the world. According to Coram Family and Childcare’s annual survey, the average cost for a full-time place for a two-year-old in England is over £14,000 a year. This is prohibitively expensive for so many families often resulting in parents, mainly mothers, dropping out of the labour market.

In that context, its easy to think that the ‘childcare crisis’ is only about affordability, but as we’re hearing more often, it’s also about availability and access. For so many working families across the country, the question they now ask themselves is: ‘Can we afford an early years place for our child? And can we find one?’

Our recent Pulse Check report found that 81% of parents with children under five are concerned about the availability of places in England. However, it’s not just parents that recognise the scale of the issue; 53% of all voters said that childcare availability was a concern and 49% felt that early education and childcare was simple unaffordable.

Despite this we found an increased awareness among the public about the value of early education and childcare with 67% saying it benefited the whole country not just parents. Whether they have children or not, people know that there are multiple benefits to early education and childcare and they want a system that delivers these.

Our extensive research tells us that parents view childcare as a necessity rather than a choice. They need reliable childcare so that they, in turn, can be reliable employees and go to work to provide for their families. However, they also recognise the benefits of early education for their children and want to feel reassured that when they are out at work, their child is in a high-quality environment that supports their development. They don’t want ‘cheap childcare’ – they want a reliable, high-quality early years system that supports their child to thrive and them to work, and they need it to be affordable.

Unfortunately, for many families in the country that system is broken. Research by the New Economics Foundation found that there are 1.5 million children living in ‘childcare deserts’ where there are at least 3 children for every one available place. In the worst parts of the country there are six or seven children for every one place. Access to suitable childcare is even worse for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) with just 6% of local authorities having enough places. It’s little wonder that availability of childcare is just as important as affordability for so many families.

Making childcare work for working parents

Building an early education and childcare system that delivers for all of us has to start with fair and sustainable funding for those providing these places. The current 30-hour offer might be free to parents, but it is not free for providers. Those hours are partially funded and that funding has never been enough to cover providers’ costs. That often results in providers closing down or not being able to afford to offer the 30 hours to parents.

If parents are to access the support pledged to them by the Government, we must fund and resource the sector to deliver for them. Our research showed that the public agrees, with 72% saying that increased government funding would support more parents to work and deliver better outcomes for children. A further 68% agree that further investment would benefit the whole country in the long-term.

Of course, funding alone isn’t enough to tackle the shortage of places – we also need a new workforce strategy to ensure there are enough early years professionals to educate and care for the increasing numbers of children coming into the system. That must include a focus on rewarding and retaining those already working in early years, as well as recruiting new passionate professionals, but it must also be about improving the quality of provision, something we know is critically important for parents using formal childcare.

As part of the Early Education and Childcare Coalition (EECC), Working Families, together with more than 30 other organisations, has supported the calls set out in our joint manifesto Rescue and Reform. The public wants to see the next government take action on childcare reform, but it won’t be enough to tackle affordability on its own, we require a whole new strategy that will improve availability and accessibility too especially for the most disadvantaged families.

Posted: 4th July 2024