Is the UK's childcare system a mess?

OPINION: Ben Black, a father of three and director of My Family Care, asks why the government didn't address crippling childcare costs for working parents in the Spending Review.

by Ben Black
Last Updated: 03 Jul 2013

The UK spends more than any of its western counterparts on childcare and yet it remains unaffordable for many working parents and continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons.  So what went wrong; who can we blame; and what are the solutions?

Well, the blame bit is easy and most of it gets laid at the door of those clever folk at New Labour.  They decided that good affordable childcare for all would have great long term benefits for UK plc.

That’s difficult to argue with but they quickly tied themselves in intellectual knots.

Is childcare policy about quality affordable childcare or about helping mums return to work? Building a local authority nursery in a very deprived area is good.  Building one in a middle class area is crackers. 

And whoever decided that giving local authorities complete commercial freedom on how to spend their large ring-fenced childcare budgets needs to be shot.  Throw in the shambolic administration of tax credits and you have a great example of how to waste money on an amazing scale.

The Coalition’s childcare tsar is Liz Truss – a bright, slightly confrontational Norfolk MP.  Her job brief was, and is, pretty easy. Simplify the existing funding streams; get some clarity on policy; and make the current budgets go further.  She looked across the pond, saw some of the great stuff going on in France and Holland and set out her ideas in a paper called More Great Childcare.

In summary, she wanted to make more use of childminders (the most affordable, flexible and unloved of the childcare options); give nurseries a bit more freedom around ratios; and put more money directly into the hands of parents partly paid for by the ending of childcare vouchers.

Unfortunately there isn’t a change that can be made that won’t have Caroline Flint and Polly Toynbee screeching down the airwaves. 


The relaxing of ratios is a case in point.  It’s a broadly sensible idea – a good nursery being given a bit of freedom to have less but more qualified staff is fine.  The problem is how you stop the "bad" nurseries from abusing the freedom.

But a bit of political naivety, a loud negative reaction from the vested interests and Nick Clegg hopping conveniently on the bandwagon and the idea was dead in the water.

When it comes to working parents and what we euphemistically call work/life balance there’s plenty the government could and should be doing.  In fact, it’s already doing quite a lot – just look at the launch of the Agile Future Forum, the proposals of the Women’s Business Council and the impressive way flexible working and shared parental leave have been relatively gently pushed through.

But there’s plenty more that could be done.

We know that working parents spend money directly on the best, most flexible, affordable childcare options.  It’s the market working in perfect harmony.  So the brave and best solution is easy to define:

·         Give payroll departments the ability to provide a tax free ‘care’ benefit
·         Define what counts as care so that informal childcare and even eldercare are included
·         And worry less about non-working parents.
 
This last point is the difficult one.  If you’re not working, why do you need help to pay for childcare - isn’t that the choice you make?

The whole point of not working is so that you can do more childcare.  Easy for me to write but a bit more challenging for a Minister to say the same thing even if she’s thinking it.

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Ben Black is a father of three, a former lawyer and director of My Family Care, which provides childcare support to employers and businesses such as P&G, Barclays, KPMG, Deloitte, and IBM.  He is also one of the founding members of Tinies Childcare which has 20 nurseries/crèches under management and 30 childcare agencies and founded Good Care Guide, the Trip Advisor type site for the childcare industry.

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