We need to ask what parents want before reforming childcare

We need to ask what parents want before reforming childcare

28th March 2014

The Scottish Council for Development and Industry this week launched a ‘politician free’ review of childcare, so keen are they to detach this issue from the party politics surrounding the upcoming Independence referendum.

First Minister Alex Salmond has said Independence will allow him to double the amount of free pre-school childcare, making it equal to the entitlement to primary school hours. This sounds very similar to the Westminster Government’s offer of £2,000 for every child where both parents are working and earning up to £150,000 each, which only kicks in post-election 2015.

A worrying consensus has broken out between all the political parties that money for childcare, as much of it as possible, will yield electoral capital. In an era of greater fiscal stringency than we have seen for decades, the level of state funding for childcare is soaring to its highest-ever level, with the public purse subsidising all but the super-elite.

Removing disincentives to work and easing the cost of living are of course laudable aims – but offering subsidies to couples who earn up to £300,000 per annum takes childcare policy into dangerous new territory.

Given the political consensus, it is likely this vast expenditure and expansion of entitlement will receive minimal political debate. Yet the Institute of Fiscal Studies has said ‘we still lack a proper rationale and evidence base for the more than £7 billion a year of public money that is now spent on childcare.’ This Government’s self-imposed financial watchdog, the Office of Budget Responsibility, also said that the Westminster Government announced an increase in support for childcare before it could estimate the costs.

It is vital to look at what a range of parents actually want for their children, particularly in the early years. The only parental choice that is respected appears to be for both parents to work, but our polling found that:

  • 88 per cent of parents and 82 per cent of adults thought more should be done to help parents who wish to stay at home and bring up their children in the early years (consistent across socioeconomic groups ABC1 and C2DE)
  • 97 per cent agree that the Government should do more in this area
  • 81 per cent of parents cited finance as the main factor in pressurising them or their partner to return to work

Adjusting the giveaway and limiting it to the ‘less rich’ would mean more money is available for transferrable tax allowances for single earner married couples relieving their tax burden, which is currently 45 per cent higher than the OECD average. It would also enable an injection of investment into the quality of the workforce in many deprived areas. Childcare in itself is not a magic wand to improve outcomes. Getting to ‘good’ is essential – and enabling parents themselves to deliver that should be a cornerstone of any childcare policy, if that’s their preference.

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