Build free, high-quality council-run nurseries to solve childcare crisis

Katie Simpson, Northampton Socialist Party

The crisis of childcare access and quality is ongoing. This month saw eligible parents of two-year-olds being entitled to 15 hours free childcare. From September 2024, this will be expanded to include nine-month-old babies.

My 19-month-old daughter is cared for by a childminder five days a week. This works out at up to £245 per week, a more reasonable rate than most. With 15 hours free we will still pay £167.50 a week – £8,710 a year.

The process of arranging childcare and costs is stressful and it puts many parents off. Not to mention that my childminder is now at full capacity and told me how guilty she feels turning people away. In fact, with most facilities privately owned and run as businesses, new funding has meant younger babies being prioritised over toddlers. Children with additional needs continue to lose out.

Parents are desperate, struggling in the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, and being forced back to work. Competition for childcare is an added stress and puts pressure on childcare facilities to take on more children without adequate staffing. The Tories have already changed the legal staff-child ratios – childcare workers now have more children they are responsible for. Low pay and long hours make it hard to hire and retain staff.

Many parents, especially mothers, are forced to work part-time or remain in the home caring for their children. This not only keeps many women from pursuing careers but also exacerbates pay inequality and sexist attitudes towards women, taking away choice. Research shows children have much better social, emotional and cognitive outcomes when their parents have had a choice in returning to work or staying in the home.

Many grandparents who were hoping to retire are forced into new roles as free childcare providers for their children. My 65-year-old mum, who hasn’t even been able to retire yet due to the increased pension age, will be supporting caring for a third grandchild come September.

Rather than threatening nursery closures, like the Labour council in Leeds, councils could create high-quality, flexible public childcare facilities to cater for parents’ needs. Private nurseries that fail to meet standards or at risk of closure could be brought in-house too. By using all resources at their disposal, linking up with other councils and mobilising popular support to demand funding from the government, childcare services could be subsidised and made genuinely free.

Labour has promised ‘childcare reform’ if it wins the next general election. Labour councils could get to work now – and put pressure on Keir Starmer to fund what is needed rather than stick to Tory ‘fiscal rules’ – cuts.

I constantly see parents struggling to find affordable or suitable activities or facilities to enjoy with their children. By investing in playgrounds, leisure and play centres and affordable community cafes, parents would be able to enjoy time with their families.

This would also give children cared for in the home a chance to interact with other children – something crucial for their development.

Councils must invest in families to enable the next generation, many hit hard by Covid, not to be lost to a failing crisis-ridden system.