All political parties seem to agree that 'something must be done' about the rising cost of childcare faced by British parents. What that 'something' looks like is harder to agree on. Consensus is in danger of breaking out over the need to address Britain's high childcare costs. A new report by the Conservative MP Liz Truss for the Liberal Democrat think tank Centre Forum points to the fact that British parents spend the highest proportion of their income on childcare of those in any OECD country, bar Switzerland. This report joins a growing number produced recently by IPPR, Resolution Foundation, and the Social Market Foundation.
It's easy to see why childcare is catching. Enabling all parents to access affordable quality childcare is probably the closest thing to a silver bullet that social policy has. There are well evidenced impacts on children's attainment from attending high-quality pre-school settings. It's clear that increasing women’s employment rates, critical to both tackling child poverty and to addressing the difficulties caused by an ageing population, means that somebody needs to be left holding the baby. No blog about childcare would be complete without a mention of the Nordic welfare states, where universal childcare provision backs up far higher female employment and lower child poverty rates. Childcare policy also speaks to a political narrative which sees the so called 'women's vote' as critical.
But if there's agreement about the problem, consensus on solutions is much harder to find. Today’s report recommends relaxing staff to child ratios in order to enable an expansion of the childminding network, and simplifying the financial support for parents. But it's unclear that these types of reforms could deliver the attainment gains for children or the employment gains for women that childcare reformers are looking for. The Daycare Trust showed comprehensively that 'quality costs' and the Resolution Foundation found that supply side subsidies appear to have more of an impact on childcare take up than demand side reforms:
"All countries with high full-time female employment rates provide some form of full-time, supply-side care for three and four year olds."
Acknowledging the problem is the first step to coming to a solution. And as the IPPR argued, investment in childcare is likely to pay for itself in the long term. But we perhaps shouldn't expect to see agreement on the policy agenda for childcare just yet.