Cropped shot of a young Asian mother using laptop and working from home while taking care of little daughter in self isolation during the Covid-19 health crisis
Artillery Row

Against daycare ideology

Parents deserve more choice when it comes to childcare

The last few years of noise-making by feminist groups may have finally paid off: last week’s budget contains radical new proposals to address the ruinous cost of childcare in the UK. If the Tories remain in power to deliver on their promises, the “free childcare hours” scheme (currently generally available to children aged three and four) is set to be expanded, so that by 2025 babies from nine months old will be entitled to thirty hours per week during term time, provided both parents are in work.

The first notable thing about this proposal is how very young children will be when they become eligible: nine month old babies generally have not yet taken their first steps or uttered their first words, and their mothers may still be on statutory maternity leave. The second notable thing is what’s not included in the scheme. Free childcare hours can be redeemed via officially registered childcare providers: nursery schools, daycare centres, and childminders. They can’t be spent on most nannies or babysitters, a child’s grandparents or other relatives, or of course used to support care by a stay-at-home parent.

Many families will find the choice is made for them

Giving this help in the form of vouchers for formal childcare as opposed to a cash equivalent which families could spend more flexibly is a decidedly ideological position for the government to take: the lack of support for informal childcare or for stay-at-home parents isn’t incidental; it’s the point. It’s all very well saying that you don’t have to use your free hours entitlement if you don’t want to. If this is the only help available, and if employers expect you to take it rather than move to part-time or remote work, say, then many families will find the choice is made for them. Again, the lack of individual choice is the point.

I’ve written before about “daycare ideology”: the assumption that getting babies and children institutionalised and women back to work as quickly as possible after giving birth is an end in itself, rather than just one of several possible solutions to the problem of keeping kids safe and happy during the working day until they are old enough to start school. Believers in daycare ideology think that parents should be “nudged” in this direction if it’s not what they’d otherwise choose, even if a system that nudges parents towards daycare is a less efficient use of funds than other forms of support, such as cash subsidies.

This stems from a combination of several ideological factors. Firstly, a blinkered refusal to see childcare as work unless money changes hands for it. Secondly, the belief that children are best looked after by “experts” with qualifications in child development, as opposed to their family who knows and loves them. Finally, a determination that public finances must be used for the promotion of virtue, not just the provision of no-strings-attached help.

The expansion of free childcare hours is a policy that explicitly rests on the logic of daycare ideology. The new policy, as explained in the budget, is premised on the false idea that parents looking after small children are economically “inactive”. Thus it is presented as a way to boost employment and GDP. Yet, as we all know, GDP and employment figures are only partial measures of productivity, because they don’t include the value of unpaid work.

Back in the day, this might be expressed with the oh-so-droll observation that when a man marries his maid, GDP goes down, since naturally she will continue to do all the same work for him, but now for free. Ha ha. Anyway, a similar magic trick can be pulled using state subsidies for childcare: let’s say we give every family on a street a voucher to pay the family next door to look after their children, and every child is shunted next door in a giant game of musical chairs. Hey presto, you’ve just created as many jobs as there are families on the street!

It’s perfectly plausible that formal childcare creates economies of scale compared to supporting stay-at-home parents, and thus could represent better value to the taxpayer. Yet, this isn’t how the policy is framed: it’s presented as though there’s nothing on the other side of the scale. Free childcare hours will allow women to get back to the office, reducing levels of “female inactivity” in line with the Netherlands, which is a “top performer” in the female inactivity department. Clearly British mums could do with being a bit more like those industrious Dutch women! Not least because female inactivity, we hear, is sadly to blame for the gender pay gap (not the political choice to label motherhood as “inactivity” deserving zero compensation).

The other justification given for the policy is that formal childcare will supposedly boost children’s future GCSE grades and earning potential. Whether extra-familial childcare is net positive or negative for children is very much up for debate, however. It depends a lot on factors like the number of hours attended per week, the ratio of children per caregiver, and how it compares to their home environment. Even if we take at face value the study cited in the budget, which finds “a positive impact on children’s future success in education and in the labour market” associated with preschool attendance between the ages of three and five, we can’t simply extrapolate backwards to claim that the benefit will be even greater if they begin earlier, as pre-verbal infants. Perhaps by this logic, since the survival of premature babies is quite good these days, we ought to be encouraging women to induce labour early so that their offspring can get even more of an educational head start, rather than lounging about in the womb for the traditional nine months.

If you listen to the complaints of struggling parents, very few say their top concern is that they are desperate for their child’s education to begin at a younger age. What almost all have in common, though, is that families increasingly cannot make ends meet, whether we’re talking about one woman forced to quit the job she loves, another who finds leaving her baby with a stranger unbearable but has no other choice, or another who desperately wants to keep an unintended pregnancy but can’t see any way she could afford to. If we are serious about offering meaningful support, it should be in the form that is most useful and flexible to those who need it, not the most palatable to a political ideology.

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