Chancellor Jeremy Hunt used this week’s Budget to announce major childcare reform which shows scant care for the children themselves. His government is pledging to offer 30 hours a week of free childcare to babies from nine months old (provided both their parents are working), the purpose being to reduce the number of “economically inactive” citizens who don’t work due to caring responsibilities. His focus is on getting parents (particularly mothers) back to work after parental leave ends in order to close the gender pay gap and boost the economy. But he fails to ask: what’s best for babies and small children?
Then again, Hunt is only responding to the current mood music. In a recent parliamentary discussion, the Labour MP Stella Creasy described childcare as “economic infrastructure”, saying “just as good roads get people to work, so too does good childcare” – but I don’t want a road to take me away from my one-year-old, I want government to recognise the inestimable value of our bond. King’s College London recently published a collection of essays on the politics of childcare. Of the 17 essays, not one was written by a child development expert or focused on the child’s needs. One essay referenced Quebec as an inspiration for introducing low-cost universal childcare for zero-four-year-olds in the late 1990s, because it led to “dramatic increases in women’s labour force participation rates”. However the author didn’t mention that Quebec’s childcare programme also led to negative behavioural and emotional impacts on children including higher levels of anxiety and aggression.
In the US, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development followed more than 1,300 children from birth until the age of 15. It found that the more time small children spent in nursery (whether high quality or not), the more aggressive and disobedient they were likely to be when they grew up. We might find that evidence uncomfortable and inconvenient, but it ought to give us pause for thought. If we choose to disregard it in favour of getting parents to work, we should at least be honest about our values and priorities.
When I asked child development experts what’s optimal for small children, they all gave me the same answer: for the first two and a half years, a child is best cared for by parents and grandparents, people with whom they’ll have a consistent, loving and interested relationship. They need as much attentive one-to-one care as possible. If a child has a secure attachment to their mother or primary caregiver, that child will be more likely to enjoy happy and healthy relationships throughout their life.
I don’t share this to make parents feel any more guilty. I know many families will be celebrating the announcement of more affordable childcare. We’ve created a society increasingly dependent upon two parents working in order to cover basic costs of living. While we’ve encouraged more women back to work, we haven’t encouraged commensurate numbers of men to step back from paid work to care for their kids – so who’s nurturing the baby?
In England the government offers free childcare hours to all children from the age of three (or from age two for disadvantaged families). This is when evidence suggests that children benefit developmentally from group care and early-years education. There is a risk that extending free childcare hours to younger children is less about what toddlers need, and more about freeing up their parents to work. Which would be one thing, if it was what all parents wanted. But a government survey of mothers with children aged four and under found that while many of those not working would prefer to increase their hours if they had the option of good affordable childcare, of those working 64 per cent said if they could afford it, they would work fewer hours so they could spend more time looking after their children, and 33 per cent said if they could afford to give up work, they’d prefer to look after their kids.
Given the variety of preferences, shouldn’t we be striving for a policy in which all choices are equally supported? The trouble with extending free childcare hours to younger children is that it ushers everyone down one route without support for parents who wish to care for their own small children. It will incentivise parents to put younger children into group care and return to work sooner than they might otherwise choose. It could create even more pressure for both parents to work and send a signal that further devalues parenting, increasing the isolation of those who look after their babies and toddlers.
Why not prioritise truly family-friendly policies, such as more generous parental leave and flexible working? The government could introduce a care allowance that follows the child, so parents could choose to use that funding to care for their own child – or pay someone else to do it.