Faces have crumpled. Clinging children have been peeled from their parents and handed to teachers. Polished shoes have skipped through gates. Exhausted little bodies have flopped in front of the TV at the end of the day.
This was the picture back in September when all across the West of England a new year of four and five year-old children have started school.
Childcare costs in the West of England add pressure on young families
The greatest relief for many parents is on the bank-balance. The cost of nursery care is over. Nursery care and the ‘luxury’ of returning to full-time work is something that only the wealthiest households can enjoy without breaking the bank.
A survey collected early this year highlights the huge financial pressure of having children. Coram Family and Childcare, a think tank, found that childcare costs have risen for the last 21 years in a row. Based on Coram’s insights on average fees, parents working full-time with two young children in the South West should steady themselves to spend over £70,000 to send their children to nursery before school. This includes government support.
In Bath today, full-time nursery fees for children under two year olds top £60 per day at many providers. Parents in Bristol can be paying over £70 per day – more than a day’s pay after tax on the minimum wage.
The generation that has borne extreme house prices or rents, university tuition fees and stagnant wages also bears the highest childcare costs in history. With inflation running at 10% these figures are set to grow fast. The cost of offering care is likely to rise even faster this year.
Childcare is an essential service
When the positive blue line appears on the pregnancy test stick, you might want to start making enquiries at your preferred nursery. Some parents report waiting lists of up 18 months to get a place.
Childcare is an essential service. Researchers in Denmark found that children enrolled in childcare at three years old had better education outcomes at age 11. The educational impact of quality early years care on education outcomes is felt strongest amongst lower-income children.
For all households, childcare is critical to helping young families return to full-employment after having a baby. Despite modest efforts to help fathers to take shared parental leave, men rarely take more than two weeks of parental leave. So affordable nursery care continues to be vital for women returning to work.
The social benefits in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries – the world’s most advanced for childcare – have been won through sustained investment, universal provision and respect for quality grounded on well-trained and well paid child care workers.
The UK system on the other hand is often described as patchwork. At least eight programmes that support children in England are spread across different government departments. Support is available for parents but it is an administrative tangle of funded early education places, tax-credits, childcare expenses through the benefits system and VAT subsidies. As with social care, the UK ‘system’ has evolved piecemeal and is overdue a simplification. Many parents miss out on care or pay too much as a result.
Quality childcare and social cohesion
Quality is important. Improved prospects for children in the least wealthy or more disadvantaged households are negligible when quality is poor. Poor quality does not improve children’s exam scores later in life. The government’s recent relaxation of rules limiting the number of children per staff member should therefore be cause for concern to parents.
Social cohesion is a more important concern than ever. Polarisation of opinion is a secular trend across many countries as the post-war institutions that integrated society feel flimsy and vulnerable. The recession and cost-of-living crisis we are now experiencing will test stretched social bonds.
Nurseries in the West of England can be highly exclusive environments. We need to consider the consequences this has on creating communities that understand one another and build a future together. The price of joining these early-years communities and the friendships that are forged in the sandpit are currently comparable to fees at the West’s most expensive private schools. This is hardly a model for building a good society.
The answer is plainly and simply political. There is no innovative financing solution that avoids creating more complication and higher costs in the long-term. If we want Scandinavian-style nursery provision at high quality for all, then we have to be prepared to support parents through public spending at the national or local level.
Growing our care economy in the West of England, and the rest of the UK, could have benefits now and in the long-term. The kids are worth it.
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