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Home Opinion Beyond childcare, childcare, childcare
Childcare • Equality • Workforce

Beyond childcare, childcare, childcare

Emma Kinloch - 27 November 2014

Policy on childcare continues to promote a conservative view of women’s roles in the home and labour market. It is time for a new approach

Over the last 25 years Britain has moved from being one of the lowest spenders in the OECD on pre-school education to one of the highest. It is now second only to Norway. In England spending has risen to £2bn per year. In the UK, all parties continue to emphasise their commitment to increasing investment in childcare. But what impact on the claims made for it – increasing women’s participation in the labour market, boosting growth, and narrowing inequality – has this huge investment really had?

In newly published research, Mike Brewer, along with the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the University of Essex, has found that the expansion in free universal childcare places for three and four-year-olds in England which began in 1998 has had only a slight impact on the employment rate of mothers. It is estimated that the expansion of free childcare places has led to a rise in the employment rate for mothers whose youngest child is aged three of only three per cent. This works out at 12,000 mothers. However, there are 400,000 mothers whose youngest child is aged three in England.

Moreover, although the addition of free childcare hours undoubtedly lessens the financial burden on households the research concludes that in the last decade five out of six families that have gained a free place would ultimately have paid for childcare anyway. So the progressive benefits of widening access to free childcare places may have been overstated.

Alison Wolf of King’s College London has also found that the current preoccupation of promoting childcare as progressive tool that also enables increased workforce participation is misguided. Wolf identifies that there is a mismatch between the political consensus surrounding formal childcare structures of nurseries and pre-school settings and the flexibility that is needed to support the modern working patterns of most women. Formal childcare settings are of most use to both the very poorest who can utilise full-day schemes and those highly educated women with professional jobs and regular hours. Childcare settings which work to strict opening hours do not, however, meet the needs of working women who need greater flexibility, such as those working shifts, who are on zero-hours contracts and those in temporary or part-time work. The focus on strengthening formal institutions has resulted in informal settings such as child minders and nannies being squeezed out of the sector, which has conversely led to the childcare sector as a whole being less convenient for working women.

Women are, in short, being failed by the sustained focus on paid-for childcare as the primary means to facilitate their entry or, indeed re-entry, into the labour market. Perhaps counter-intuitively the majority of low- and middle-income families have seen no real benefits in the last decade from increases in paid-for childcare and women are not being enabled to return to work through pursuit of this policy.

Childcare has widely been seen not only as a tool to close the inequality gap between children, but also as a way to increase women’s access to the labour market and as a result a driver for economic growth. Yet, it is estimated that, based on progress over the last decade, it will take another 81 years for the world’s economic gender gap to close and for the associated economic benefits to be felt.  Based on recent research it is apparent that childcare is not the public policy solution to drive economic growth or indeed to have a progressive outcome.

Clearly an alternative approach is needed. In a low-growth international environment, progressive political parties must seek to invest in the human capital that women build up through their employment pre-childbirth and recognise that flexibility in both employment and childcare is key. A predistributive model must be part of that process. Predistribution is an approach to public policy that seeks to counter inequality at source while simultaneously encouraging economic growth.

There is often an implicit assumption in childcare research and policy formulation that women will be taking up the childcare burden within a two-parent household, and that policies should be geared to facilitate women’s entry or return to the labour market. However, this legitimises the very inequality that leads to women undertaking unpaid labour in the home and reduces economic activity. The assumption imposes a rather conservative starting point, insisting that a women’s role is as the primary care-giver. A progressive approach must seek to understand how this traditional role can be challenged through public policy. Undoubtedly, an essential component of a pre-distributive approach would be to build on shared parental leave. In the UK it is currently left entirely up to the couple to decide how the leave is divided - which more often than not still results in women taking the vast majority of the leave due to social norms.  One way to achieve parity could be to shorten the UK’s comparatively generous statutory maternity leave, and to build on the largely symbolic two week paternity leave. For example, Norway has a three month minimum paid paternity leave quota which can only be used by the father.

To aim for a more balanced entitlement with paid maternity and paternity leave would be beneficial in several ways. It would significantly reduce the ‘motherhood pay penalty’ (the fall in earnings that is linked to the break of economic inactivity following childbirth) as women would be economically inactive for a shorter period. With men having a statutory right to paid paternity leave over a similar (although inevitably shorter) period, it would become the norm that new parents are absent from the workplace immediately after the birth, leading to attitudinal change and practical changes in care provision in the home. The reluctance of small and medium-sized businesses in particular to hire women of childbearing age would inevitably be eroded with this new norm being created. This would not only allow more women to join or rejoin the labour market, but would allow women to enter more secure and senior forms of employment due to the root of inequality being tackled, rather than just the symptom.

This is just one aspect of how a predistributive approach could enable greater gender equality and drive economic growth. Placing a greater emphasis on investments which encourage would-be mothers not to sever their links with the employment market, back-to-work schemes specifically aimed at new mothers, workplace-based childcare, and targeted tax credits could all also work towards the same aim: greater gender equality, rising financial security for families and economic growth.

Emma Kinloch is events and stakeholder manager at Policy Network


This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

Tags: equality , recession , labour market , pay gap , childcare , maternity pay

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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