The leaders of the three main parties all have young children, and wives who work, but it seems to me that they’ve written their proposals without so much as speaking to any working parents. (Which, by the way, doesn’t even seem possible, considering they’re working parents themselves…)
Anyway, Labour have pledged 25 hours of free childcare a week for three and four year olds. The Tories have offered 30 hours a week, and the Lib Dems have committed to 15 hours a week for children aged nine months to two years where both parents work, 15 hours for all two-year-olds, and 20 hours for three and four year olds.
It all sounds pretty good, right? Wrong.
Because what the politicians are doing is mixing up childcare and education. Preschool is education. Childminders, nannies, day nurseries, after-school clubs, breakfast clubs, holiday clubs – they’re all childcare.
Preschools follow the early years curriculum, which continues into reception at primary school. They normally operate from roughly 9am to roughly midday, and they’re open in term time – that’s about 39 weeks of the year.
This is how our days looked when my son was at preschool. At 8am he went to his childminder. At 9am she took him to preschool. At midday, she took him home and cared for him all afternoon and evening, until I picked him up at 6.30pm. Childminders, rightly, have very strict ratios about how many children they can care for, and that means they can’t fill the space left by a child attending preschool. So we paid our childminder all day, even though our son was at preschool for a tiny part of that day. His free hours meant he could go to preschool – we couldn’t afford to pay twice – but in terms of cutting a childcare bill? Nothing. Nada. No difference.
Sometimes a preschool is part of a day nursery, in which case, brilliant. You get a small reduction in the fees – so for 39 weeks out of 52, you pay for seven hours instead of the 10. Which is good, but not good enough, really.
The amount the government/local authority ‘pays’ for a space at preschool isn’t as much as it really costs. So preschools take a hit by offering free places. They can often suck it up by tweaking paid-for places, but it makes things hard. And childminders can’t afford to take that hit. So even if they jump through the hoops needed to be able to offer free places, it doesn’t add up for them.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that while bandying around the words ‘free hours’ is a brilliant soundbite, it’s actually – and excuse my language here but it’s really the only word that fits – bollocks.
There is a system of childcare vouchers at the moment. Working parents can buy £243 worth of vouchers every month from their gross salary, which means it’s tax-free. Those vouchers can pay any sort of childcare from childminders to holiday clubs. The scheme has its faults: I think it’s overly complicated because there are too many providers. I have NO idea why the random amount of £243 was chosen and has never changed. You should be able to claim much more than that – double, or triple that amount. It’s not available to self-employed people. Not all companies offer it.
So it definitely could do with a few tweaks. But it works. It might not sound as amazing as ‘free hours’ but it’s flexible, it’s practical, and it WORKS.
I’m fairly sure if any of the politicians had bothered to ask any working parents what they need from a childcare proposal, they’d have said ‘extend the voucher scheme’. Maybe they’d have said something about encouraging companies to be more open to flexible working. I’m quite positive not one single parent would ask for more ‘free hours’. It’s just a shame none of them thought to ask.