As a parent of small children, Boris Johnson is unusual in having to worry about sticky finger prints on his golden wallpaper or potty training accidents in the Cabinet Room. But in another way he is entirely typical. The Prime Minister has reportedly noticed that childcare costs in Britain are extortionate, and is pushing for the relaxation of adult-to-child ratios in nurseries to help bring them down.
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what childcare costs actually mean for a family. To give an example, my daughter’s nursery fees are around 70 per cent of my earnings. Without my husband’s income I couldn’t afford to work – a great loss to New Statesman readers everywhere. My situation is far from unique. A typical two-earner family spends around 30 per cent of their income on childcare – the highest in any developed country. Unaffordable childcare is disastrous for equality because it drives mothers away from the workforce, and it’s a hammer blow to national productivity – plus, it’s unacceptable at a time when we are facing the biggest cost-of-living crisis in decades.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. The UK is almost unique in the amount of red tape it wraps around around early years childcare. Starting with those ratios, in the UK one adult can only look after four to five under-three-year-olds, which is among the most stringent requirements in western Europe. By contrast Sweden, which is often held up as a gender equality utopia, has no ratio at all. If we don’t wish to go quite that far, one think tank estimates that bringing the ratio into line with Norway, at one adult to nine children, would halve the costs for parents.
But if the Prime Minister really wants to bring down the costs of childcare, then he should undertake far more ambitious reforms. The government spends around £6bn a year subsidising 30 hours of childcare a week for three-year-olds. While this does help some families with the out-of-pocket expense, the overall result is that many nurseries, especially in poorer areas, are going out of business because the funding doesn’t cover their costs. As an effective handout to families that could otherwise afford it, the government’s “free” childcare provision is a poor use of taxpayers’ money – and it has demonstrably failed to bring down costs overall.
Furthermore, pre-schoolers in the UK also have to follow a “curriculum”, called the “Early years foundation stage”, which covers everything from literacy and numeracy, to expressive arts and design. This means carers have to spend time filling out assessment forms on the “development” of children who have barely learned to pick their noses. Some will argue that all this regulation is necessary to protect children’s safety and promote their education. But by pushing up the costs, tighter regulations actually reduce the quality of childcare because they force parents who can’t afford it to rely on informal arrangements with unqualified people. Nordic countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Finland that have fewer rules are hardly considered bad places to raise a family – if anything they’re often pitched as the ideal. Even a system closer to the European average would be more affordable for parents and better for children.
So from one parent to another, I thank Boris Johnson for trying to tackle this problem. After all, if he can have seven (or eight) kids, why shouldn’t a professional childminder look after a few more?