Pregnant then Screwed March Of The Mummies protest demonstration to demand Government reform on childcare parental leave and flexible working conditions. March and rally from Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square central London Photo: Paul Mattsson
Pregnant then Screwed March Of The Mummies protest demonstration to demand Government reform on childcare parental leave and flexible working conditions. March and rally from Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square central London Photo: Paul Mattsson

For free, flexible, public, high-quality childcare for all

Bea Gardner, Socialist Party national committee

The question of childcare is a critical one for many families. Extortionate costs, limited availability, provider closures and quality of provision are all issues confronting those seeking childcare. Those providing most of the childcare at home face other pressures, including financial burdens from relying on one wage or universal credit payments, neither of which cover the real costs of raising a family. These issues disproportionately impact women, given that women continue to carry out the majority of childcare, both in the home and as workers in the childcare sector. 

The situation is particularly acute in Britain. Even when factoring in government support, an OECD report – which placed the UK as the least affordable childcare overall – found that childcare costs for two children under 5 take up more than half of a woman’s average wage in the UK. For women on a low income, childcare costs alone amount to nearly 100% of earnings!

And the situation is not much better for those with older children. Even when factoring in soaring supermarket costs, the average family in the UK spends more on afterschool clubs (necessary as childcare at the end of the working day) than on their weekly food shop; research by the children’s charity Coram found after-school club costs have risen by over £800 a year since 2010.

Cost of living

The crisis of childcare, combined with rising living costs, is driving increasing numbers to fight back, especially women. Hundreds of thousands have joined the growing strike wave, notably in the public sector unions where women are the majority. Fighting for above-inflation pay rises is an important step toward alleviating some of the financial burdens on women with children. However, the trade unions can and should go much further, incorporating demands for genuine flexible working and a 32-hour week without loss of pay as a starting point.

In the economic boom following the Second World War, capitalism was forced to give some concessions, under pressure from the working class. For example, council-run nurseries were established, albeit on a limited basis, and maternity rights were extended. These measures reduced some of the burdens of raising a family and allowed for greater participation of women in the workplace and in the trade unions.

The capitalist class has persisted in clawing back these limited reforms since, in an effort to maintain and boost profits. Services established as public services have been privatised. Those not deemed profitable enough closed down.

Today capitalism faces a new, deepening crisis, and with it, worker shortages and a childcare crisis. Consequently, increased pressure is being placed on individual families to fill the gaps left by a failing childcare system, with women feeling the strain sharply. The number of women having to leave work to look after the family has risen by 5% in the past year, a reversal of the trend of the last three decades, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Under pressure of the childcare crisis, the Tories have been floating some changes to provision – but what is on offer amounts to tinkering round the edges. It will come nowhere near meeting parents’ needs, and will be without sufficient funding to expand provision.

Labour’s policies for breakfast clubs and the right to request flexible working from day one of employment are woefully inadequate. We already know that many flexible working requests are denied, and those who do work flexibly face discrimination as a result. Plus, flexible working often means working from home, juggling paid work with childcare. While that may suit some women, for others it can be an impossible burden.

Trade union fightback

The trade unions, with over six million members, represent the strongest organised force in society. They, therefore, are best placed to fight for and win gains for workers, including childcare workers, parents and families. 

Strong trade union organisation in the workplace is necessary to ensure existing policies are actually implemented and to challenge discrimination – alongside fighting to strengthen the law to give access to genuine flexible working and increased parental leave.

To ensure that those with children can participate, especially women, childcare must be offered across all levels of trade union activity. Workers still have to pay childcare costs when on strike, and unions’ strike funds should account for this.

Unions should not limit their fight to workplace issues, but fight for broader political demands that benefit workers. The current free childcare entitlement (between 15 and 30 hours for over-threes and some two-year-olds during term time) is not sufficient and overcomplicated. Parents are left having to fund up to 20 hours of extra childcare to cover a 37-hour week plus travel and commuting, as well as struggle to find provision outside of term time.

Access to free, high-quality, community-run childcare should be extended to all ages to meet the needs of all, including parents who are shift workers, with care available mornings, evenings, at weekends and during school holidays. Free School Meals should be extended to all children of all ages, as well as free public transport, so no child has to pay to get to school.

We need a political force that fights for these policies and more, that stands on the side of workers and the trade unions, not the bosses. Labour under Keir Starmer has shown that it is not that force. A new mass workers’ party is needed to put a socialist alternative.

Capitalism – a system based on generating profits for a few – will continue to drive down living standards for parents, families, and the working class. By transferring responsibility for raising the next generation of workers to individual families, the capitalist class saves billions that it would otherwise spend on providing the care, food and other necessities required to raise a child. This is one of the reasons why the family remains an important ideological and economic unit for 21st-century capitalism.

The unpaid work carried out within the family – primarily by women – leaves the bosses’ profits intact. We stand for public provision of quality services, fully funded and democratically controlled. With capitalism in deep crisis, it is clear that we need to fight for fundamental change: for a socialist programme to transform society by taking big banks and businesses into democratic public ownership, so resources can be planned to meet society’s needs.

The fight to defend and extend provision

The largely privatised early years sector was hit hard by the pandemic, with 3,847 providers closing between April 2020 and July 2021 alone.

This comes on top of the more than 500 publicly funded Sure Start centres closing since 2010. Consequently, long waiting lists exist in many areas, and expectant parents are advised to register their child well in advance of their child being born to guarantee a spot!

In Leeds, the Labour council is proposing to close five nurseries, with four being merged. In Southampton, four YMCA pre-schools are closing, leaving 145 children without a placement.

Instead of passing on Tory austerity by closing valued services, further exacerbating these shortages, councils should rescue the closing services, including taking private services at risk of closure in-house, and extending provisions to meet need.

Trade unions should lead and back parents’ and workers’ campaigns to save services, calling on council’s to meet the community’s needs – adopting Unite the union’s policy that “councils should set legal, no-cuts budgets” and demand the funding from central government.

Safety and quality of care

In a desperate attempt to increase capacity, The Tories have proposed increasing staff-to-child ratios. Not only will this impact the safety of children and the quality of provision, it will exacerbate worker shortages in the sector by placing a greater workload on an already low-paid workforce.

A 2020 report from the Social Mobility Commission reported early years workers being paid an average of just £7.42 an hour, with 45% claiming benefits or tax credits to supplement their low income.

The below-minimum wage average is driven by the one in eight paid under £5.00 an hour as apprentices. A social mobility commission report stated there was “strong evidence that the instability of the early year’s workforce is related to the low income of its members”.  All those working in the childcare sector should be fully qualified with paid-for training and receive a real living wage of at least £15 an hour.

Studies show that inequalities between children are already well established before the age of five. Meaningful care, delivered by fully-trained staff at safe staff-child ratios, is hugely beneficial for children’s development. At older ages too, youth services and purposeful and educational after-school clubs benefit children, as well as providing essential childcare.

Childcare provision should be publicly funded and democratically run, involving representatives of parents, the local community and childcare workers.