That’s according to the House of Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare report, published this week. Currently parents of all three and four year olds, together with 40% of the most disadvantaged two year olds, are offered 15 hours of free weekly education. Ed Miliband plans to extend this to the working parents of all two year olds, as well as offering childcare for all Primary school children by opening schools from 8am until 6pm. But the system has inherent flaws, which Ministers seem to be wilfully ignoring.
The first problem lies in the multiple aims of the policy, which are to: promote child development; narrow the attainment gap for disadvantaged children; enable parents to work, and (implicitly) reduce child poverty by enabling children trapped in inter-generational poverty to break out of the cycle. But this creates a tension – cheap childcare enables parents to work, but provision may not be of a high enough quality to support child development. One policy is seeking to solve two issues; childcare and early education are not the same thing.
The second problem lies in a lack of empirical evidence. There is insufficient data to know whether the policy is having any impact on maternal employment or to judge the effectiveness of spending – many three and four year olds, for example, would be in some form of early education regardless of the policy.
The third problem lies in the nature of provision. The policy is heavily reliant on the Private, Voluntary and Independent sector (PVI) to implement (96% of two year olds access provision this way), but funding inequity means that maintained sector nurseries are given more money than PVI providers. Without adequate funding, these providers cannot employ trained, qualified staff at the same level as the maintained sector. In fact, in many PVI settings, funding does not cover costs, so parents are making additional payments, thus subsidising a government flagship policy which claims to be free.
The fourth problem lies in the clear statement from the Committee that this policy alone is not enough – the home environment is critical and not enough is being done to support this aspect of child development. And this exemplifies the limited effectiveness of single policy solutions. Emergent theory says that social problems are complex and so need a whole picture solution which addresses all the problems in one go. Offering free childcare, giving book gifts at birth, improving housing or expanding Sure Start centres (via charities) all have limited impact, as each strategy addresses just one issue.
A separate report from Jubilee + recently concluded that 52% of children in England access some form of parent and toddler group via churches. Other churches and faith groups also fall into the category of voluntary nursery provision. Christians are motivated to do this because they care, and because they want to live out in practice the law to love your neighbour as yourself.
With the ‘new culture of social investment in childcare’ created by the government this week (for which read ‘rely on the voluntary sector because there’s no money’), it looks probable that whichever government is in power after the election, it will be looking to churches to increase childcare availability. There is no magic bullet, but there are many, many people, motivated by their love for God and love for humans created in His image, who will meet the challenge of giving each and every child and family the opportunity to flourish. That is faith in action.