Photo: First Minister of Scotland/CC
Photo: First Minister of Scotland/CC

Childcare will be an issue in the general election. Both the Tories and Labour say they will boost places. But as Bea Gardner argues the whole childcare system is broken. What is needed is not sticking plaster but fundamental change.

The childcare system in Britain is in crisis. In the last 18 months, pressure from parents and campaign groups has forced the Tory government to announce their flagship funded hours rollout – a policy Labour has said it will not reverse. But what was promised as “free childcare” has been delivered as a confusing, piecemeal system, under which many parents still face hefty fees. Meanwhile, continuing staff and provider shortages mean there are even fewer places to go round. Since 2014, in 116 of 149 English local authorities, the rate of population growth was greater than the growth of the childcare sector.

Childcare policies are a feature of the general election campaign for both Tories and Labour. According to one think tank, manifesto pledges to lower costs and increase availability of childcare are policies that swing undecided voters. It is an important issue for women because, despite improved social attitudes, a disproportionate amount of childcare and related tasks is carried out by women, including as paid work.

Childcare policies also have wider implications: childcare is a vital social infrastructure enabling parents to work as well as giving children and young people opportunities to learn, play and socialise.

Childcare cost crisis

A quarter of a million mothers with young children have left their jobs because of difficulties with balancing work and childcare, according to the Fawcett Society. ONS figures also indicate that before the recent expansion of funded places, women’s participation in the workforce was in decline for the first time in decades, reflecting these pressures. Because of this, various financial concessions have had to be introduced under the current system. In fact, there are six different avenues of state-subsidised childcare, which in combination are projected to cover 80% of childcare costs in Britain, if the full funded roll out is implemented.

This is not because the Tory party is a party that genuinely cares for the wellbeing of children and their families – just look at the 1,000 children centres closed in the last decade. But rather because they have been confronted with the reality that for many parents on low and even middle incomes, it makes little financial sense to work as childcare fees are beyond their salary in many cases.

The Socialist Party fights for

  • Free, public, high-quality and flexible childcare accessible to all, from birth
  • Flexible provision, including availability in the evenings and at weekends
  • Expand provision, including funding the building of new, high-quality facilities
  • Extend public childcare provision to include activities for older children and young people, such as youth services as well as sport and leisure facilities which need to be fully staffed and properly resourced
  • Reopen Surestart centres and expand provision of children’s centres to offer parenting support including for feeding. Bring privatised services such as health visitors back in-house

Privatisation failure

Many of the few remaining council-owned nurseries are being closed, not due to lack of need, but because cash-stripped councils are selling off ‘assets’ (buildings) and cutting so called ‘non-essential’ services, instead of fighting for the funding and services people need. The majority of early years providers are privately owned, with private nurseries and self-employed childminders providing the majority of care for under-5s. Most operate on weekdays only, with food costs on top of fees. 

Private ownership means following so-called market ‘logic’, which in reality means charging the most possible and taking in the highest numbers of children at the same time as reducing costs, through low staff pay and not investing in training or equipment. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that private providers have higher staff-to-child ratios than voluntary and community nurseries and 87% increased their fees in the last 12 months.

A privatised childcare system also fuels competition between providers. The best-performing nurseries, in areas with high-earning families can charge the most fees, which exacerbates inequalities. It also contributes to provider shortages, with fewer private nurseries and childminders in the most deprived areas.

  • Bring nurseries and other childcare facilities back into public ownership
  • Expand free school meals to all children in all education and childcare settings

A real living wage and improved conditions for childcare workers

Privatised childcare has resulted in early years educators and childcare workers being some of the lowest paid. The average wage of an early years practitioner is well below the national minimum wage due to the reliance on extremely low-paid apprentices – one in eight are paid under £5 an hour. They also work some of the longest hours relative to comparable jobs. One in six leave the job within a year.

  • We campaign for union recognition for every childcare worker and for fighting, democratic trade unions that implement collective agreements which guarantee living wages for all staff, pension provision and fair terms and conditions

Democratic control and genuine choice

Even though huge sums of public money goes into childcare, under the current system we have little control. ‘Childcare Choices’ is the name of the Tories’ childcare scheme. But parents’ genuine choice over their child’s early education and care is constrained. Only 6% of councils have sufficient spaces for children with disabilities. There is limited provision on evenings or at weekends, which is particularly challenging for shift workers.

All childcare services should be run democratically by representatives of the workforce, parents and wider community, including input from children and young people. Early years education shouldn’t only be for those in work or during work time. All parents should have the availability of quality childcare, to allow for participating in social life. All children should have the opportunity to attend an early years setting that meets their needs. That means flexible childcare, not just based on the most-profitable hours of 8am-6pm, but with evening and weekend provision as well as provision during the holidays.

  • For parents’, students’ and workers’ democratic control of childcare and education provision and curriculum

For a genuine work-life balance

Long working hours, rising costs of living and housing shortages place huge strains on parents.  One in five households living in London do not have access to a garden or balcony. Parents face lengthy and expensive commutes between home, work and childcare, especially those without access to a car. There is also the domestic burden – cooking, cleaning and washing – which two-parent households spend an average of four hours a day on, the burden typically falling disproportionately on women. All of these pressures ultimately impact on the amount of quality time for families.

  • For the real right to flexible working from day one – on workers’ terms, with no loss of pay
  • £15-an-hour minimum wage for all with no exemptions
  • For decent benefits that reflect the cost of raising children, rising with the cost of living
  • Full maternity and paternity pay throughout parental leave at a rate of 100% of weekly earnings or 32 hours at national living wage levels, whichever is higher
  • An extension in maternity and paternity leave up to a year
  • End overcrowding and unsafe housing. For mass building of council homes with gardens. Introduce rent controls, end landlords’ discrimination against families with children and for those on housing benefit

A movement of the working class

Childcare is a workplace and trade union issue and should be central in a fighting programme of the whole trade union movement. Not least because women make up 60% of essential workers and a majority of trade union members. The working class needs a political voice – a new mass workers’ party to fight in its interests – and the trade unions could play a central role in bringing such a party into being.

We are standing candidates in the general election, pointing in the direction of the mass working-class based alternative that is needed. We have a track record of campaigning for the local services working-class families need, including fighting against nursery closures. The election is also an opportunity to raise what could be possible if the profits of the few were democratically controlled by the majority.

  • For fighting democratic trade unions, union recognition in the workplace, and an end to the anti-trade union laws
  • For a new mass workers’ party, based on the trade unions and fighting for socialist change

A socialist society

Britain’s childcare crisis is a symptom of its economic decline and fragility. Even during periods of sustained economic growth, such as the period in the aftermath of World War Two, capitalism has been unable to provide this. Concessions have been won previously by workers and campaigners, such as the increased number of council-run nurseries opened during and after the second world war. Unlike today, these were typically open seven days a week and were not only free to access but also provided a free quality cooked meal and clothing for every child that attended.

Under capitalism in crisis gains are ultimately constrained. Any gains made have to be defended, or risk being clawed back. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

If the big companies and banks were taken into democratic public ownership a plan of production could be developed to meet the needs of all. What is currently siphoned off as profits into the bank accounts of the super-rich minority could instead be directed to benefit the majority. That includes investment in education and services for children, young people and families.