Universal, free childcare: Utopian ideal or red-herring dead-end?

Over the last week the Labour party has started bouncing around the idea of universal, free childcare again. They must, in part, suspect it will be a vote winner. Just at the moment, so many of the serious political columnists and commentators are suggesting that childcare costs will be a BIG issue at the next election. So we can’t really blame Labour for headlining this supermarket-style loss leader. Now, don’t take me as displaying my political colours one way or the other; I tend to think that it is policy content and the individual minister, and not the shade of paper they are using, that matters more these days. But I did notice that the idea’s reappearance caused quite a stir on a few of the big parenting website message-boards, and it got me thinking. Given my blog’s aspirations to have you do the thinking, I thought I’d add my musings to the mix.

I’m going to start by taking this back to the big picture. What does society want of families, and for families? Amongst many other things, society really benefits when families are emotionally robust and functioning as a unit. Families who are fiscally independent enough to choose how to organise their manpower, especially when the kids are little, tend to be low on stress and don’t ask much of the state. In blunt terms, they are then much less of a financial burden and resource-drain. So, while they never quite know how to say it for fear of causing offence, the politicians like it when families are low-stress, high on stick-ability.

Now, what causes stress in families, and undermines that unspoken political goal? One of the biggest causes is financial hardship and disagreements over money. Statistically speaking, one of the most vulnerable times in any relationship is during the first year of the first child’s life. In this year, family income drops more dramatically than perhaps at any other moment in the course of a couple’s life together. Trying to juggle baby-exhaustion, less cash that needs to pay for more, a shift in relationship dynamic and a new ‘order’ of who does what (and who has what ‘status’), is very, very hard work. In the current climate, the pressure to keep the roof over the heads is even more intense. And so, to get back to our beginning, the prospect of free childcare is genuinely enticing, seemingly a clear way out of financial tough times, allowing mummy to get back out there and consume/contribute etc, etc, etc.

But does she (or daddy) necessarily want to? As many of the intelligent writers on the Mumsnet discussion thread noted, surely the existence of readily available free childcare will only result in some parents feeling obligated to go back to work. If those parents are then working against their will, so to speak, that isn’t going to reduce the stress in their family units one jot. For me, this is a most persuasive argument against the idea. I also find myself wondering what happens to the quality of childcare provision as a whole, when it has to multiply its ranks so dramatically. It’s an industry that my working life has brought me into close contact with and I know how hard it is to do it well. I fear for its ability to keep children safe while creating such increased capacity. And critically, when the brilliant psychologist/author Oliver James reviewed the happiness of nations’ world over, in his excellent book Affluenza, he found that those countries who had this kind of childcare provision were not socially or economically better off for it. So here in the UK we can romanticise the life, for example, that our Scandinavian neighbours are enjoying, but we don’t see all the issues; in particular, we need to make certain we’re thinking about what is good for our kids. Uncomfortable though it is for us to acknowledge it, it isn’t necessarily developmentally appropriate for them to spend too much time in daycare when they are under two. But perhaps that’s a discussion for another day, complex as it is…

Now, just at the end of the last Labour government the then Poverty Tsar Frank Field did some research into how to better utilise the state purse in supporting families with young children. His views were genuinely informed by some serious research into the benefits to society of investing heavily in the early years of childrens’ lives. His report had a fair few radical suggestions, including the idea of varying the amounts of child benefit and tax credits families receive depending on the age of the children. In short, he wanted to give families a lot more cash when the kids were between nought and five, and then taper it off to a lower level, when the freedom to get back out into the labour market comes about by virtue of school attendance. In his eyes, mums who wanted to stay at home with their babies would then be fiscally free to do so, and those who chose to work had the readies in their purse to meet the childcare bill. Sadly, his ideas came just as the tide turned, and however much common sense Mr Field spoke, one can see that David Cameron and he were never going to admit to a shared political agenda. Since then, Ian Duncan Smith has been battling with the budgets to introduce the Universal Credit, but it does not go anywhere near as far as Frank suggested.

So we are no closer to working out the conundrum of some mums wanting to be out there and feeling held back, and some mums wanting to be at home but not sure how to pay for the luxury.  Universal, free childcare might look like utopian-esque solution, but, in my humble opinion, ladies and gentlemen, it will cause as many problems as it solves – and there is another way, if only us mums (and dads) could persuade the politicians to take another look.

Occupation: freelance writer

A few times in the last couple of weeks I have found myself needing to answer that question about how I earn my living on some official form or other. These moments have brought about a cheerful realisation; I have actively earned more money from my writing this year than from anything else. Now, don’t get envious, or think that I am worth approaching for investment. We’re not talking much here. But it has been something. Talk about satisfying. I did my work experience from secondary school in the newsroom of my local paper. I got a piece in print, and then, for reasons I struggle to now fathom, didn’t return to the ambition until earlier this year (twenty-five years later). So now I am in a position to finally use the words ‘freelance’ and ‘writer’ when filling out forms, I am darn happy about it – and available for hire!

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One thought on “Universal, free childcare: Utopian ideal or red-herring dead-end?

  1. Pingback: Greatest Hits from my First Album | Not Different But Interesting

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