Alongside the welcome promise of more money for childcare, we need clearer strategies. Photo: Getty
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Childcare is a new election battleground, so why do none of the parties get it?

Although politicians are focusing on childcare, British parents are still expected to pay a higher price than in much of the rest of the developed world. We need better-quality investment.

We have lost our way on childcare. No party has set out a vision for where we are trying to get as a country. Parties compete on who can invest more without any sense of an overall plan. The result is a fragmented, increasingly complex system that still expects parents to pay a higher price than in much of the rest of the developed world. There are few examples in public services of money alone making things better. It needs to be carefully marshalled to make a difference. A new Resolution Foundation report by leading childcare experts, Kitty Stewart of the LSE and Ludovica Gambaro of the Institute of Education, sets out a path for reform for the UK, offering the best ideas from abroad. Central to getting greater value for the £5.5bn we already invest in childcare as well as future investment is to do what other countries do better and attach tighter strings to public funding.

The first priority for reform has to be improving quality. If we want childcare to have a positive impact on children’s intellectual and social development, it has to be high quality and the best measure of quality is having graduate trained staff. The problem here is that government funding currently makes no allowance for the extra costs of more highly qualified staff. Instead of providing the same per child, per hour funding for the 15 hours of free childcare that the government offers parents of three and four-year-olds and some two-year-olds, regardless of the quality on offer, we should look to the tiered funding approach in New Zealand where higher quality providers receive a higher level of subsidy. Adopting this approach in the UK would create an incentive to hire better qualified staff in a market where competition alone has done little to raise standards. Before extending the free hours as Labour has proposed, they should consider how a more "strings attached" approach could improve the quality on offer.

Another area for reform is the way in which funding supports children from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is strong evidence that providing high quality childcare is more difficult if providers have a large proportion of children from less well-off homes. However, these children benefit disproportionately from high quality childcare. For this reason, the government introduced the early years pupil premium which will give providers an additional 50 pence an hour for each child from a disadvantaged background. But there are no conditions on how that money is spent and whether it is even spent on the child themselves. A better approach would be to follow Berlin’s lead, where the state government offers providers with more than two-fifths of children from migrant families additional funding to be able to employ more staff or specialist staff such as language teachers. If the £50m earmarked for the pupil premium were focused not on individual children but on nurseries with large numbers of disadvantaged children and dedicated to employing graduates, it would be more likely to pay dividends.

On affordability, we could be more like Australia. The UK government’s proposed tax-free childcare scheme will cover 20 per cent of childcare costs up to £10,000 a year. In Australia, families can get up to 50 per cent of their childcare costs paid up to the equivalent of just under £5000. Families in the UK who spend as much as £10,000 on childcare a year tend to be dual earning, professional families on a high income. The median amount spent on childcare in a year is under £2000. Tax-free childcare would do more for those who really need help by offering a higher subsidy up to a lower threshold. Australia also offers more generous support to out of work parents, easing the transition in and out of work that is increasingly a feature of employment for low income families. Put together, the subsidies on offer in Australia mean that all families spend no more than 10 per cent of their net income on childcare, compared to close to  20 per cent for middle income families in the UK.

As the election approaches, it is good to see childcare emerge as an important battleground between the parties. But alongside the welcome promise of more money, we need clearer strategies. Where are we trying to get and how will each party’s reforms get us there? No strategy will be perfect. No single country has achieved an ideal system. But, if new money is to result in better quality, more affordable childcare here, parties have to start demanding more for the public pound.

Vidhya Alakeson is deputy chief executive of The Resolution Foundation

Vidhya Alakeson is deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

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Work with us: Wellcome Scholarship at the New Statesman

Be one of our 2016 science interns.

Britain needs more great science writers – particularly from backgrounds which have been traditionally under-represented in the media.

To address this, the New Statesman and Wellcome Trust, in partnership with Creative Access, have come together to offer annual placements to student or graduates from an ethnic minority background*.

The final 2016 placement will take place this Autumn/Winter (the exact date is flexible) and will last for four weeks.

Over the course of the placement, the successful applicants will:

  • Work alongside the New Statesman web and magazine team, learning about the editorial and production process, and how articles are conceived, written, edited and laid out;
  • Undertake a data-driven journalism research project on a scientific topic, which will be published on the New Statesman website
  • Visit Parliament and learn about how science-based legislation is developed and debated in the select committee system
  • Have an opportunity to interview a leading scientist or policy-maker
  • Write a regular bylined science blog on the New Statesman website
  • Receive regular feedback and editing from the editorial team
  • Meet journalists at other titles in the sector (previous Wellcome Scholars have met writers for the Atlantic, and presenters for the BBC)

Over the course of the placement, you will be paid London living wage.

To apply for the placement, follow the steps below and apply direct to the New Statesman. 

Please write an 800-word blogpost on a recent or upcoming scientific development which you feel has the potential to change lives significantly, explaining clearly and concisely what stage the research is at, and how it is likely to proceed. It should be written as if for the NS audience - interested, intelligent laypeople.

Please also write up to 200 words on why you are right for this placement and what you would hope to get out of it. You don't need to send a CV.

Please only use Word files, or paste your text into the body of an email. 

Send your application by email to Helen Lewis (Helen @ newstatesman co uk) with the subject line “Wellcome Scholarship 2016”. 

Applications close on 30 September 2016. Interviews will take place soon after.

This is a positive action scheme under the Race Relations Act.