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3 January 2023

Rishi Sunak can’t get away with neglecting childcare

The sector’s woes are more than an education issue, so the Prime Minister would be wise to heed his MPs’ warnings.

By Zoë Grünewald

The UK’s childcare system is broken. It is one of the most expensive in the world, the average nursery bill for a family with one child being £7,212 a year, up by 44 per cent since 2010. For many families with small children, monthly childcare costs are higher than the rent or mortgage payment.

And it is only going to get worse. In the midst of the cost-of-living crisis, nurseries have warned that they may have to put their prices up because of the increased cost of energy, food and rent. Rising prices have also forced providers to shut down: 4,000 early years providers closed last year. As nursery spaces become more limited, prices are likely to increase even further.

Rishi Sunak must get a handle on the issue, and fast. For a start, the economic case for fixing childcare is overwhelming. The Institute for Public Policy Research, a progressive think tank, found that free pre-school childcare would both increase government revenues and save families thousands of pounds a year. With the UK said to be facing the worst recession in the G7 and experiencing historically high economic inactivity rates, the Conservatives cannot afford to waste the chance to help parents who want to return to the workforce.

The gender aspect of the broken childcare system is also impossible to ignore. As the typically lower earners in parental partnerships, mothers tend to be disproportionately affected by the childcare crisis. It is of no surprise that there were 64,000 more women out of work in August to October 2022 than in the same period in the previous year, with many citing caring responsibilities as a major factor. The crisis is forcing women out of work and back into the home.

The Prime Minister’s colleagues are starting to voice concern. Robin Walker, a Conservative MP, told me prior to his election as chairman of the Commons Education Committee in November that childcare was one of the most pressing issues for the government. The committee has since begun an inquiry on the issue. Simon Clarke, another Tory MP, has called England’s childcare system “hugely and unnecessarily expensive” and said “we should do all we can to support working mums” (presumably dads too). Andrea Leadsom, the former cabinet minister, said it would be a “major, major battleground issue for the next election”.

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Sunak seems to not have noticed. Reports that he has shelved the “big bang” reforms proposed by his predecessor, Liz Truss, increasing free childcare support by 20 hours a week and scrapping required staff-to-child ratios, have gone down badly with MPs from all parties. Truss’s solutions weren’t perfect (some were concerned in particular about plans to relax staffing ratios) but MPs are worried that Sunak has failed to offer an alternative.

Labour is working on a £6bn plan for a major expansion of childcare. Unlike the government, the opposition seems to have a tangible vision for education. Rachel Wearmouth interviewed Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, recently. Phillipson wants to create a modern childcare system for the UK modelled on Estonia, and Labour’s vision will mean “rethinking the entire education system”, expanding state-run nurseries.

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If Sunak can’t present a viable alternative to Truss or Labour, he may be in trouble. He faces pressure to fix the system both from his party and the public, as dwindling birth rates, stagnating growth and gender politics make the issue far more prominent and politically contentious than perhaps he realises. The issue of childcare runs deeper than education policy, and Sunak would be wise to take his colleagues’ concerns seriously.

[See also: New year heralds no resolution for Rishi Sunak]

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