The coalition still isn't rising to the challenge on affordable childcare

The changes announced today by Liz Truss are unlikely to significantly reduce costs, boost quality or widen access to early years provision.

You might have missed it, but today Liz Truss published the latest instalment in the government’s early years reform plans. More Affordable Childcare is the culmination of the government’s commission on childcare. The looming summer holidays might be a delight for kids, but many working parents will be put under huge pressure by the childcare costs that go with it. The need to bring down the price is urgent.

This year, for the first time, the average cost of holiday childcare per child per week has now topped the hundred pound mark. Childcare inflation marches on, far above salary increases, squeezing family budgets. With the average couple spending over a quarter of their net income on care, England is one of the most expensive countries for parents needing childcare.

The government hasn't gone far enough to meet the challenge. Today’s publication, following a year long commission on the early years, doesn’t really provide any new approaches to reform. Most of the changes announced are unlikely to substantially reduce costs, boost quality or widen access to early years provision.

The best news from today’s publication is extending the free entitlement for 2 year olds from the most deprived 20 to 40 per cent. This is good news, but old news – restating what was already pledged by the government. Nevertheless, this is an important step forwards, and should have a positive impact for families. Another good measure is increasing funding for out-of-hours care in schools clubs. But this, in essence, is bringing back a weakened version of Labour’s Extended Schools funding, which was previously scrapped by the coalition.

The other announcements tinker at the margins. Cutting red tape is unlikely to lead to parents seeing real savings in their childcare bills. And new IPPR research shows that introducing childminder agencies could lead to costs actually increasing for parents (as well as potentially undermining quality).

Another bad move is leaving Ofsted as the sole arbiter of quality, and giving settings the automatic right to deliver the free entitlement if they receive a 'good' or 'outstanding' score. The Daycare Trust recently crunched the numbers and demonstrated that Ofsted isn’t always a reliable judge of quality. Particularly in the case of the under-3s, Ofsted scores failed to reflect which settings were best for children’s development. While high quality childcare is good for children, low quality can actually be detrimental.

There needs to be some new, bold thinking. There’s agreement that getting high quality early years care is important and yields dividends for children, parents and society. But both More Great Childcare and More Affordable Childcare fail to rise to the scale of the challenge.

On cost, the government should look seriously at supply-side funding. There are warnings from other countries, that investing in demand-side funding can lead to spiralling inflation and a system that costs more for everyone.

On quality, the government needs to go further. Our polling, and public responses to reform proposals, show there’s real appetite in the sector for driving up quality and status. We believe there should be a minimum requirement of having or working towards a relevant level 3 qualifications for all professionals delivering the Early Years Foundation Stage. The government should also bring back the successful Graduate Leader Fund to keep driving highly qualified staff. More graduates means more centres are able to look after more three and four year olds at any one time. This could cut costs for parents, without being detrimental to children’s development.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg sit together as they visit the Wandsworth Day Nursery in London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.