Labour leadership hopeful Yvette Cooper on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty Images
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Queen's Speech: lots of promises, but challenges ahead on childcare

Childcare is an sound investment: fund it now and we’ll see the benefits for years to come, in terms of rising levels of maternal employment with additional tax revenues, falling child poverty and improved child development outcomes. The rationale is simple; delivering the policy less so.

 

Yesterday’s Queen’s speech was not shy of commitments. Among them was doubling the free hours of childcare offered to parents of three and four year olds from 15 hours to 30 hours a week, from 2017. I doubt there will be much political argument over this particular announcement. Cross-party consensus is evidence of a shift in the policy debate. The Conservatives went further on childcare than Labour at the election, but now Yvette Cooper ha sannounced she would extend the free hours to two year olds if she wins the leadership contest. So we can truly say that childcare is no longer a yes or no policy debate -  the question now is not so much whether to improve the offer for families, but how to do so. 

Three things make this a big challenge. Firstly, it is an expansion of a system that is already struggling to meet demand. Most areas are currently under capacity for 15 hours, let alone 30, and it will be a considerable challenge for the childcaresector to increase its capacity. The sector will need sufficient funding for the hours it provides, and some providers would need up-front investment to expand their provision. The former is yet to be decided and latter is not on the table. 

Secondly, it is currently underfunded and cross-subsidised by top-up fees paid by parents. Part of the under-supply may be because the rates paid to providers are simply too low. The Government have committed to consulting with the sector on the appropriate rates. These need to increase to meet provider costs if this expansion is to succeed without a drop in quality and drastic market distortions.

This leads us on to the third challenge: funding this expansion without hurting other parts of the education system. At £350m, it is likely that the cost of this proposal has been significantly underestimated, even without taking into account the need to pay higher rates to providers. If this sum isn’t enough, funds will have to be found elsewhere. The last spending review ring-fenced schools but no other areas within education. This leads to difficult questions about where the money will come from in a zero sum game.

Back in 2013, Liz Truss, then childcare minister, proposed an increase in ratios of children to staff - allowing more children to be looked after by each nursery worker or child minder - but dropped the proposals after a resounding disapproval from the sector. It is possible that the new Government could try a similar move to keep costs down for this extended offer, but this would mean sacrificing the quality of childcare in order to provide the new offer. This in turn would reduce the chances of parents taking it up, increase the gap between state and private provision, and have particularly damaging impacts on the poorest children. 

This funding question is urgent in light of the forthcoming expansion, but even more so given that even if delivered this commitment will leave significant childcare needs unmet. Yvette Cooper is right - we should also go further by providing childcare support for two year olds. Rather than seeing childcare as a subsidy to parents, government’s focus should be on building institutions in communities that can support families. Growing childcare provision by direct funding ensures that nurseries can build a role as centres of community engagement and action, and offer wider support for families that need it.

There are other measures that should also come hand-in-hand if we want to boost maternal employment, such as protecting and extending parental leave, improving access to good quality flexible work and removing financial disincentives for second earners under the Universal Credit. The Government shouldn’t be anxious about adequately funding measures to support mothers to work. It pays dividends

Childcare is an sound investment: fund it now and we’ll see the benefits for years to come, in terms of rising levels of maternal employment with additional tax revenues, falling child poverty and improved child development outcomes. The rationale is simple; delivering the policy less so. With the PM making this a priority and the Childcare bill set to make it law, the childcare ministers are returning to a new set of challenges. Now they need to deliver. 

Giselle Cory is Senior Research Fellow at IPPR.

Giselle Cory is senior research and policy analyst at IPPR.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war