Asking Robin Van Persie to kick the childcare football straight into the Equalities net

January 21st 2013

Childcare is flavour of the week and quickly becoming a political football.  I wish we had an equivalent Robin Van Persie to either land the childcare ball in the net, or kick it so far into the distance that we have to begin a debate that gets us to really consider what we want from childcare.

At the moment the media and the sector are making a fuss as to why it’s taking so long for the Government to respond to the Childcare Commission. I have no idea why people are investing so much energy into this anticipated announcement. It’s not going to solve the fundamental question as to why childcare is so expensive.

The Commission was set up by Sarah Teather MP when she was Minister  of State in the Department of Education. Her approach was quite different to that of our new Minister Elizabeth Truss, unsurprisingly given that she is a Conservative and Ms Teather a Lib Dem.  I might also remind everyone that when the Childcare Commission was launched just before the summer there was great annoyance from the sector about the timing, the questions and the purpose.  The issue will never be resolved until we have a big conversation with ourselves about what we want for our children. At the moment two parallel drivers dictate childcare policy framed within  rather confused thinking about how it can help reduce child poverty. The first policy strand focuses on enabling women to work, and the second to support social mobility in an attempt to help break inequality.

This week the challenges of both policy approaches reflected my week.  First of all I attended the Child Poverty Alliance and was roused by My Fair London campaign’s reminder of the invidious consequences of inequality.  Quoting statistics to make your head roll, I was reminded that London has the largest gap between rich and poor of any city in the developed world, with two thirds of all wealth in London held by just 10% of Londoners.  I was reminded that the consequences of this inequality is bad for us all on so many levels, not least creating a lack of trust between the economic classes, poor child wellbeing (remember the UK  came last in UNICEF’s report), poor health, increased cases of mental ill-health and general all around human misery.

Statistics show that in countries with the lowest levels of inequality, trust levels are five times higher and involvement in the community much greater than in countries where inequality levels are highest. What’s more, where inequality levels are high, children of families on the lowest incomes are already a year behind in their development by the age of five when compared with those who are better off (a fact that made me put down my current book Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens to re-read The Spirit Level; to be honest all of a similar theme).

Given that early education is considered a key factor in addressing this inequality – because it gets people to a place where they are more likely to succeed, and ultimately people with more education earn more, pay more taxes, are more productive, vote and are generally happier – a then access to childcare and education for young children as a driver of social mobility makes sense.

Midweek, I went to hear the Resolution Foundation research about improving  childcare to be an even more effective  policy driver for getting people, especially women, into work. They told us their findings that  showed that two parent households of low to middle incomes (£17,000 to £41,000) are little better off than those on poor incomes. In fact they confirmed what we already know, that instead of taking working parents out of poverty, childcare costs were driving working parents into debt and poverty (an already all too familiar picture at LEYF). At this point, it is worth recalling the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who showed the link between inequality and the financial crises. He pointed out, it is no accident that both major modern crises – the first beginning in 1929, the second in 2008 -coincided with historic levels of inequality.

While there was much ooing and aahing from the Resolution Foundation audience of media, policy makers and charities, the question remained what to do. A  key solution from was to offer parents an extra 10 hours a week at £1/hour for children aged 2, 3 and 4. I was slightly dismayed by this idea, given that Governments past and present have so far steadfastly refused to pay even the going rate for childcare, meaning providers like ourselves already subsidise the cost of childcare to families by up to £500 per child per annum. How then would we get any Government to pay for an additional  properly costed  contribution of  a further £3billion?   This and finding out  what happens to the current £7billion is what the Childcare Commission should be addressing? Not tinkering with deregulation, alienating the sector and suggesting some regressive tax breaks.

In essence, the fundamental issue is exactly what David Cameron has already said himself:

More unequal countries do worse according to every quality of life indicator.

David Cameron, Hugo Young memorial lecture, November 2009.

The Government therefore needs to weave the two strands of its policies together more coherently. Employment and social mobility should be one, so all families are supported out of poverty, not into it; and early education is delivered in a way that supports the longer term aim of creating a more equal society with all its attendant benefits.