‘Our Childcare Sector Is Leaving Working Parents Trapped Under A Glass Ceiling’

Weston MP John Penrose is meeting with Boris Johnson soon to find out why the UK has some of the most unaffordable childcare in the world

childcare sector Grazia childcare campaign

by John Penrose |
Updated on

Good, reliable childcare is absolutely essential for any working parent who doesn’t want to put their career on hold. Parents who don't have free help from a non working partner or family member find themselves trapped under a thick glass ceiling where they can’t work a few extra hours to improve their pay, apply for a promotion, or switch to a sector with more travel or longer and less-predictable hours, because they’ve got to pick up their kids from play group or school.

Childcare is vital for breaking that glass ceiling and creating better opportunities and life chances for everyone. It matters for all of us, whether we are single parents or working women, people in low-paid roles who are trying to work their way up and out of poverty, or anyone trying to avoid becoming downwardly-mobile if their existing childcare arrangements dry up. For example if a spouse or partner leaves, or if a grandparent dies or moves away.

But there’s a problem. As childcare campaigns like Grazia’s one with Pregnant Then Screwed have shown, Britain’s childcare is among the least-affordable in the developed world. And in spite of these sky-high costs, lots of nurseries are struggling to hang on to skilled staff who can earn more elsewhere, or going out of business entirely. If an entire industry is hardly profitable at the same time as charging internationally high prices and battling to retain staff, there is something fundamentally wrong.

Pretty much every Government has tried to subsidise their way out of trouble, with schemes like the universal 15 hours' free childcare or holiday clubs for disadvantaged children. They cost taxpayers over £3.6 billion last year but, even worse, all that money hasn’t stopped nurseries from going out of business or losing staff.

That’s because ever bigger subsidies from already hard pressed taxpayers are simply treating the symptoms rather than solving the underlying problem. Instead, as I’ve argued in my just published policy paper ‘Poverty Trapped: Why Is Poverty Still With Us After 70 Years Of the Welfare State?’ Government ministers have got to design out the causes of these internationally high costs, so parents can find high-quality and safe childcare that isn’t nearly so pricey in the first place. Many childcare providers say they are imprisoned by old, detailed, bureaucratic regulations which were (rightly) introduced to guarantee safety and quality. But they put the industry into an old, out of date straightjacket, which stops it from trying different ways of achieving good results more cheaply.

If the rest of the developed world can deliver high-quality childcare more cheaply, then why can’t we? We should be able to design out our costs so they’re below the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average, while still delivering a safe and enriching level of service.

More affordable childcare would be a huge help for hard-working parents, particularly for single parents and mothers too. It would give anyone who is ambitious but currently caught in a low-paid role a better chance at promotion and developing their career. People whose childcare arrangements collapsed at short notice would have less risk of losing their job because they’d find a broader and deeper pool of affordable alternatives instead. It would make us a more socially mobile, meritocratic society, because more people would be able to find jobs that worked for their family. Employers would have a bigger, better pool of talent to choose from when they are recruiting or promoting to fill a particular role. And because the biggest winners would be single parents and working women, we’d slash gender pay gaps too.

Even better, it would turn ‘levelling-up’ into more than just a public works programme of new roads and railways, to include social reforms that make Britain a fairer and more equal-opportunity country as well. And last, but definitely not least, taxpayers would do well by doing good: designing out costs would make the entire childcare industry more efficient, profitable and better to work in, while at the same time cutting all those taxpayer-funded subsidies too. What’s to dislike?

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