It’s well documented that the childcare sector in this country has big problems – problems that pre-date the savage cuts programme that has been implemented since 2010. Childcare in this country is scandalously and prohibitively expensive yet those who work in the sector are woefully underpaid and overworked.
The childcare that we do have doesn’t meet the needs of parents. Nurseries often have long waiting lists, and school age children often have no access to after-school or holiday childcare. Childcare provision for disabled children is patchy, expensive and hard to access across the board.
And our already ailing childcare sector has deteriorated rapidly in a climate of austerity and economic downturn.
If you’re a parent facing redundancy or forced into involuntary part time work or precarious zero-hours contracts, chances are you will not be a position to pay for regular formal childcare. Most nurseries require a fixed pattern of use (eg. set days, set hours) with a notice period for changes to that pattern. Clearly nurseries can’t operate in any other way or they would never be able to manage their staffing requirements or cash flow.
The system is just about manageable if you’re in a steady, 9 to 5, office job with little fluctuation in your work patterns. However, if you’re on a zero hours contract with little control over your shift patterns or your weekly income, you have little hope of being able to arrange suitable childcare in a conventional nursery. As many families have shifted from dual incomes to single incomes as a result of rising unemployment, the childcare sector has suffered as a result.
The cutting of the childcare element of tax credits from 80 to 70% has also had a significant impact on work incentives for low income parents, particularly single mothers.
Perhaps the most visible impact of the government’s cuts programme on the childcare landscape has been the removal of the ringfencing of local authority budgets for Sure Start children’s centres. Four hundred Sure Start centres have been forced to close since the ringfencing was lifted. More than half of those centres which are still managing to open their doors offer no childcare services onsite. Not only do those closures mean fewer parents able to access affordable childcare, they also mean fewer joined up children’s services such as parenting classes, nutrition advice, speech and language therapy, and ESOL classes and employment skills training for parents. The impact of the loss of these services should not be underestimated. For many, their local Sure Start centre is a lifeline.
In spite of the senseless cuts to these vital services, it should be noted that our government does seem to recognise that we have a problem with childcare and it’s not averse to throwing some money at the problem.
The 2013 Budget saw a welcome – albeit flawed – announcement that £200m would go into the Universal Credit system to help with childcare costs for those who work sufficient hours to qualify. However at the same time he also announced that a far greater sum – £750m – would be invested in a new system of tax-free childcare vouchers. Many commentators were quick to point out that this would disproportionately benefit high earners. The Resolution Foundation’s analysis found that 80% of those who would benefit from the tax-free childcare vouchers would be in the top 40% of earners.
If the government really wants to address the huge barriers to work presented by our failing childcare system, direct funding at those who need it most and it must act quickly to prevent further damage to our Sure Start services.
What’s your story?
Have you got a story about how your family or your friends have been affected by cuts in childcare and childrens’ services? We want to hear from you. Please add a message via this site – We’ll be collating them for a public report that we’ll be presenting to government.