Education and Childcare: why sustainable Out of School provision is the key to “levelling up”

In a recent Guardian article (3/9/20) Alexandra Topping spotlights the findings of a TUC survey of the effects of the pandemic on childcare and the subsequent impact on working mothers, who it finds have borne the brunt of the crisis and who are being stretched to their limits to balance work and childcare (30% reporting that they regularly work pre-8am or post 8pm). The current lack of access to childcare, largely due to breakfast and after school clubs remaining shut and informal childcare (from family and friends) being limited, risks pushing women out of the workforce and “turning the clock back on decades of labour market progress” is the stark warning from Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC.  According to the report, 41% of working mothers with children under the age of 10 cannot get or are unsure whether they will get enough childcare to cover the hours they need from September onwards.  1 in 6 working mothers – mostly in low-paid jobs – reported that they have had no choice but to reduce their working hours.

The TUC is calling on the government to expand the furlough scheme beyond October for parents without the childcare they need and for companies to provide more flexibility for working parents.  The CEO of Working Families, Jane van Zyl, has called for caring responsibilities to be centre stage in the government’s economic recovery plans and Caroline Nokes, Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee wants “women to come out of this pandemic in as good an employment position as men” which she fears will not happen without some proactive policy. 

All of which is positive, welcome and timely.  But, why has it taken a pandemic to turn this particular spotlight on?  With the greatest respect to the TUC and its research participants, keen observers could be forgiven for dismissing it as “whinging”.  None of this is new.  The pandemic may have thrown it into sharp relief and heightened the issues, but the bottom line is that successive governments have failed to adequately monitor and adjust childcare funding in line with inflation and increased demand. What many working parents are experiencing for the first time now has been the reality for lower income families for far too long.  Families who are trapped in poverty, unable to work due to the constraints of childcare needs that are beyond their budgets, may well be heard yelling “welcome to my world!”

The pandemic has exposed the tip of a massive iceberg which has been lurking beneath the surface of UK family life for many years and onto which not only the careers of working mothers, but access to work for mothers (and fathers) and the educational attainment levels of their children have been successively crashing and destructing.  We should not be ungrateful for the urgency of attention that the pandemic has afforded these critical fault lines in our current “system”, but in the rush to analyse every nuance of suffering that the pandemic has wrought we need to take the utmost care to retain perspective if we are to truly forge a new way ahead. 

Gaining that perspective where childcare in the UK is concerned, is frustratingly and notoriously tricky.  It’s no coincidence that there is a dearth of regularly reported information, carefully collated statistics and evidence of impact when the system itself is so complex, so subject to regional disparity in terms of demand, cost and policy and falls so dramatically short of hitting the mark each successive year. The result is a tangled web of complex and insufficient statutory provision bolstered by the efforts of the private and voluntary sectors who plug gaps wherever possible, and not to be forgotten, the army of informal carers (many of whom are grandparents) who give up enormous amounts of time for little or no remuneration.  

One of the few organisations which regularly charts childcare progress (or lack thereof) is the charity Coram Family and Childcare (formerly the Family and Childcare Trust). Their annual survey focuses on three main areas of research: the price of childcare, the availability of childcare and Local Authority feedback and its overarching aim is to support families with clear guidance on current support and availability.

Pandemic or not, the 2019/20 report is hardly uplifting reading:

  • The average cost of 25 hours of nursery for a child under 2 is now £131.61 per week (£6,800 per annum)
  • The average price for families using an afterschool club for 5 days per week is £60.99
  • Only 56% of local authorities in England have enough childcare for parents working full time
  • Fewer than 1 in 5 local authorities in England have enough after school childcare for children aged 12-14, or for disabled children, or for parents working atypical hours
  • In Scotland there has been an increase in sufficiency in the majority of categories with the exception of that for disabled children
  • In Wales there has been a decrease in sufficiency in all categories
  • Northern Ireland is excluded because the childcare funding system is very different, making it hard to draw direct comparisons

Where childcare policy is concerned, it’s fair to say that there have been significant efforts to support families during the last two decades:

  • 15 hours of universally funded childcare for all 3 and 4 year olds for 38 weeks per year in England (from August 2020 30 hours per week for 38 weeks and up to 12.5 hours per week in Wales)
  • 30 hours of funded childcare for 3 and 4 year olds with working parents for 38 weeks per year in England (the same as universal funded childcare above in Scotland and 30 hours per week for 48 weeks per year in Wales)
  • Tax free childcare covering 20% of costs up to £2,000 per year per child under 12 or £4,000 per year for disabled children under 17 for  working parents in England, Scotland and Wales
  • the 2016 policy giving parents the “right to request” wraparound and holiday childcare from their school
  • Universal Credit which pays up to 85 per cent of childcare costs up to a £175 per week for one child of any age and £300 for two or more children of any age with Ofsted registered providers in England, Scotland and Wales

In short, government investment in childcare has risen over the past 20 years as evidenced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ 2019 report that £3.3 billion was spent on funded childcare places in 2018-19.

These are seemingly proactive efforts from supportive and engaged governments – they are certainly fodder for manifestos and party conferences, endlessly “trotted out” as evidence of concerned and listening policy makers – but scratch the surface and those familiar fault lines are never too far below:  15-30 hours of free childcare for 3-4 year olds does potentially enable parents to engage in part-time work but what happens when the safety net disappears when their child enters primary school?  Even if they can manage the term time around their part-time work commitments, how can they juggle the 13 weeks of holiday time?  Many parents with children aged 3-4 will go on to have more children and will therefore find that without comparable universal childcare support for 1-3 year olds they are unable to get back to work.  Tax relief and Universal Credit are both means tested and where the latter is concerned money is not forward funded. Most parents in this situation are unable to pay for childcare in advance. The “right to request” has had virtually no impact and government has not made any significant effort to monitor reporting from Local Authorities or to assist or guide parents in the process of initiating and following through with their request.

Cynically, the dearth of reporting on childcare trends could be construed as yet more evidence of the superficiality of focus by policy makers despite the very clear messaging from the few that take the time to grapple with the minefield that is childcare provision. Maybe it’s time that the childcare providers themselves, those of us at the coal face, join forces to ensure that we don’t rely on external bodies to send messages on our behalf to those in power. Maybe now is the moment for us to find our collective voice and to take responsibility for the necessary action that will shape our own future.  If so, then we need to radically overhaul the way we tackle childcare in the UK and start to think creatively.  What are the big drivers of demand in 21st century Britain and how can we best ensure that supply meets that demand?  Childcare is a massively inadequate word to describe the weighty issues that it embodies. It is not, as the word would suggest, simply the care of children. It is the foundation upon which optimal, sustainable, socio-economic symbiosis should rest and from which we can truly heal and grow as a post-pandemic national community. In the absence of a grassroots message, Megan Jarvie, head of Coram Family and Childcare speaks on our behalf:  “Childcare is every bit as vital as schools, healthcare or transport. It supports parents to work, provides our economy with a reliable workforce and boosts children’s outcomes…”  If Boris is serious about levelling up, then this is where it should start.

The main driver of demand for childcare is working parents or parents who desperately want to work to improve the quality of their own family’s life. This demand begins with the birth of a child and continues until such a time as children are deemed capable of taking responsibility for themselves when parents are not around (usually in their mid-teens).  It spans the pre-school years, the primary school years and continues some way into the secondary school years.  For the majority of British families, it is as vital as the air we breathe.

It is justifiably right and proper that statutory money and focus should be given to young families and that we should be doing everything possible to ensure that children are “school ready” when they arrive in Reception. The current levels of funding are not enough or sufficiently accessible, and many parents still find themselves locked out of work and social advancement due to the high costs of childcare.  But arguably the focus and the will is there, albeit that there is still much work to be done.

Babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers require full time childcare from parents or qualified practitioners.  It is therefore also perhaps justifiably right and proper that the “rawness” of early years needs, the unpredictability and vulnerability of very young children, should take the lion’s share of statutory focus and funding. 

But what is not justifiable right or proper is that we lose that sense of duty and responsibility when children start school and then overlook the damage that is done during the hours that our most needy children spend out of the classroom and in so doing miss vital opportunities to support mental and physical wellbeing, nurture and educational attainment. 

In January 2020 a group of BASc students from UCL completed a 3-month research project commissioned by After School Nannies as part of their final year assessment.  Their “brief” was to provide a comprehensive market and contextual analysis of the current state of Out of School Care (OSC) in the UK in order to better understand and address the inequalities in OSC provision.  Not surprisingly, their findings with regard to demand, supply and economic cost were in line with those of the Coram annual survey.  But where Coram stopped short, perhaps due to their overview of childcare across all ages, the BASc students continued to mine the social and economic benefits of OSC.

Their findings, based on national and international research and reports, converge to demonstrate how affordable and efficient OSC is a key driver in enabling families to lift themselves out of poverty. In addition, OSC has been found to have a positive impact on children’s physical and mental wellbeing, boosting attainment levels and thereby acting as a protective factor against poor academic outcomes, low confidence and self-esteem, reduced career opportunities and lack of respect for authority often leading to involvement in crime. OSC is also recognised as a contributing factor in the development of three key mediating mechanisms which determine a child’s development into a social adult: attachment, moral reasoning and self-control. Breakfast clubs have a significant health impact by offering nutritious and varied food which may not be readily available in the household. In addition, after school clubs frequently include physical activities such as sport, games and playtime contributing to physical and mental wellbeing and promoting a healthy lifestyle. OSC can justifiably be seen as a significant long-term investment in the aspirations, opportunities and outcomes of children and as a key player in tackling poverty and regenerating society.

As an independent provider of after school childcare, I view the spotlight that has been pointed at it in recent weeks as a silver lining amidst the Covid carnage. I welcome the stark evidence underscoring its value in our society. Where children and families are concerned, the two most prominent issues that have emerged during the pandemic are the problems experienced by working parents with school aged children. Home schooling alongside working from home and now that  children are back in the classroom, the familiar “juggle” of after school care but now without access to wraparound group provision or one to one care from childminders, nannies or au pairs. Add to this the appalling negative effect of a 6-month lockdown on our most disadvantaged children and the shocking evidence that a decade’s work to close attainment gaps has been all but wiped out and you have a vivid, microcosmic insight of life at the blunt end. Whilst for many of us the problems will fade into the background with the end of the pandemic, this brief, shared experience is a priceless opportunity to do much more than expand the furlough scheme or increase flexible working as the TUC is demanding. Nor is it as binary as making sure that women emerge from the pandemic in as good an employment position as men. 

It should not have taken a pandemic to show us how inextricably bound together education and childcare outside the classroom are. But their “coming together” in recent months under the Covid microscope is perhaps indicative of a way forward. Just as the surprising legacy of the power of Zoom to deliver education and commerce – who knew?! – is surely here to stay, is now the time to harness the creativity and goodwill behind the survival of lockdown and truly “own” the inherent problems and potential opportunities of out of school childcare? Just as Zoom has broken down the barriers of technophobia, perhaps all the players in this universally acknowledged area of need and potential are now charged with working together to break down the inherent prejudices of the traditionally binary makeup of education and childcare. State versus private. Affordability versus quality. Privilege versus inclusivity.

According to Justine Greening, founder of the Social Mobility Pledge, smart business leaders are looking beyond the Covid crisis to see what they can do to close the opportunity gap. If that’s the case then out of school childcare should be one of the first places where they look to invest and in doing so they will be boosting the economy by enabling parents to work and investing in their future workforce by supporting children with high quality effective childcare, subsidised where necessary, that matches need.

Private schools, most of whom already support the state sector in a multitude of ways from student mentoring and sharing of facilities to fiscal investment, should be encouraged rather than accused of self-serving patronage designed to protect their charitable status.

Children’s Centres, designed as sustainable community hubs and steadily in decline as a result of local authority spending cuts, are surely ripe recipients for “smart” investors. And if those investors are wondering who will make up the workforce, they need look no further than the army of students, many of whom already choose childcare over and above other part-time work to top up their maintenance loans. The really smart investor might even strike a deal with government to fund his army of student mentors with a reduction in their crippling loans.

We are yet to find out what the post-pandemic landscape will look like. But it’s not too early to begin to build on our collective experience. Creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit are the forerunners in the race for survival so far.

Elizabeth Rackow

CEO After School Nannies

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