2ATYRYT Baby group playing with paints, UK

Who will look after the kids?

Why should the State prioritise getting new mothers back to work above all else?

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When it comes to the question of who should care for the nation’s children, the UK has made a clear policy decision: not their parents. 

In this country, much of the help with the increasingly unaffordable cost of raising children is effectively in the form of vouchers that can be used to buy Ofsted-certified childcare. If instead you want to look after your child yourself, you forfeit these benefits. 

Why do we have this system, when we could instead take the budget for childcare vouchers and give it to parents to spend as they see fit? In this setup, nothing would stop families from continuing to put their children in daycare with this allowance, if that was indeed what worked best for them; if they preferred to take an extended leave from work or reduce their hours to spend more time at home, they could use the money to fund this instead. Or they could use it to pay a relative or friend who was not registered with Ofsted but did have a personal relationship with their child.

We could subsidise childcare in a way that allowed families more choice, was simpler to administer, and didn’t cost the taxpayer any more than the current system. But we choose not to, because of daycare ideology. 

Daycare ideology is the belief that putting children in daycare and facilitating the return of their mothers to work is an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve the primary aim of supporting families. Subscribers to daycare ideology might think that parents should be “nudged” in this direction even if it’s not what they’d choose for themselves. They might accept creating significant inefficiencies as a cost of imposing their preference.

The idea of sending new mothers back to work as an end in itself is a relatively recent development. Just a few decades ago it went without saying that generally, mothers would prefer to look after their own children (at least while they were very small), but nowadays this is seen as a bit dated and perhaps anti-feminist. 

The progressive, neoliberal view is that we should aim for women to be liberated from anything that holds back their ability to work “like a man” — that is, like someone who has a wife at home taking care of their children. 

The increasingly common practice of mothers expressing and storing breast milk during the work day is a sign of this change in attitudes. For most of history, the idea that women should, as the norm, be separated for the majority of every working day from their unweaned infant would have seemed insane. Nowadays, we are “liberated” from that constraining hang-up.

… there is a failure to recognise childcare as work

Because domestic labour is undervalued, there is a failure to recognise childcare as work unless it takes place in a designated workplace, by unrelated individuals who are employed to be there. Combine this with our government’s allergy to giving people money without strings attached (even where this would be a more efficient use of funds), and you get the idea that directly supporting a stay-at-home parent is giving free money to undeserving idlers. Making sure parents can only use this support for the virtuous purpose of going to the office and adding to the nation’s GDP is much more palatable to the Protestant work ethic.

Ideological attachment to the principle of daycare also stems from a belief that “experts” should manage the raising of children and that parents themselves can’t be trusted with it. (They might have unpalatable beliefs, and they almost certainly do not have any qualifications in childcare).

This view was quite plainly put forward by Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, in a recent Woman’s Hour special on childcare. He explained that he sees the primary purpose of the childcare system as not just looking after children but educating them and supporting their development: “If we … get it wrong in terms of their education, their development, they will cost us hundreds of thousands of pounds further down the line. This is about intervention, this is about prevention, this is about investment.” 

Leitch mentions so-called “feral children”, including the story of “a 14-year-old that stabbed a 13-year-old”, with the moral being that “they were three-year-olds at one particular point in time. That’s why we need to invest.”

That’s all very well — if you can demonstrate that your nursery school really does have a protective effect against later knife crime, that’s fantastic. But this is a major distraction from what we should be focused on, namely, financially supporting the care of children, not worrying that they will become “feral” if left in the hands of their parents. 

The idea we need to “intervene”, as Leitch puts it, in any but the tiny proportion of families where children are neglected or abused, is not only wrong-headed and patronising but also should not be the primary focus of a system for funding childcare.

Daycare ideology is also behind … legislative bloat

Daycare ideology is also behind the legislative bloat that surrounds the childcare sector, driving up prices. Everything must be officialised. For instance, it is illegal to accept money to look after your neighbour’s child at your home as well as your own on a regular basis without jumping through huge numbers of hoops to become an Ofsted-registered childminder, including obtaining planning permission to run a childminding business from your home. 

As a childminder, you will also have to demonstrate that you are following the national Early Years curriculum, assessing and reporting on how the tots in your charge are progressing towards specific learning goals. Unlike older children, if under-fives are looked after at home by their parents, we do not insist that they are home-educated. How, then, can we possibly justify making it illegal to care for children outside the home without adhering to this framework?

The same interfering impulse that means we don’t trust parents to parent means we don’t trust childcare providers to do an adequate job without onerous levels of oversight. Some basic precautions, such as DBS checks and first aid training, are probably proportionate. But it’s easy to lose sight of all proportion when you can point to possible improvements in the welfare of children as the justification for ratcheting up the red tape — while the costs of mounting levels of paperwork are ignored. 

Nobody wants to stand in opposition to the principle of “quality childcare”, but if we make this our primary aim, then we risk more and more time and money being diverted into chasing after ever-shifting goalposts of vaguely defined “quality”, instead of stepping back and allowing subsidies to do their job and make childcare cheaper and easier for parents.

Survey results show that parents want to spend more time with their children. Recent polling by the thinktank Onward found that, when parents were asked what they would do for childcare if money was no object, the most popular option by a long way was “myself or my partner would stay at home”. 

Can we really justify telling parents they don’t get to decide for themselves on this deeply important private matter, all for the sake of ideology?

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