Picture credit: Lourdes Balduque/Getty
Artillery Row

Make childcare cheaper, not more complicated

We won’t educate children better if there are no children to teach

In England, it costs over 40 percent of the average person’s take-home pay to put a one-year-old child in daycare. In London, where nursery schools can cost upwards of £20,000 per year per child, that figure is even higher. These costs are not just steep: for many, they are literally impossible to manage. Even selling a kidney — something the most desperate person can only do once — might not cover a year’s fees for one child.

This has predictable consequences. Many young couples take it as read that they will have to leave London if they want to have children; either that or they just don’t do it at all. Birth rates in the UK, which have been below replacement levels for the last half-century, reach new record lows every year, with fertility in the capital even lower than the rest of the country. Many specifically cite the impossibility of paying for childcare as the reason they are not reproducing.

Allowing costs to remain this high is a form of slow-motion national suicide. But most discussion of this issue seems to focus on subsidising this enormous cost, rather than wondering why it is so high in the first place. In the latest budget, the Conservatives announced a plan to pour more money into the system with a radical new expansion of subsidies to much younger children, an approach which Labour seem likely to mimic in their manifesto for the next general election.

But stop and consider it, and these prices don’t pass the smell test. Why should putting a single child in nursery school in the capital city cost the same as a graduate starter salary? Something is not adding up here.

Part of the reason for high costs is the burdensome regulation that weighs down the childcare sector. Many people are not aware that it is currently illegal to regularly look after somebody else’s children during the day in your home in exchange for money without being an Ofsted-regulated childminder. Childminders are not allowed to just be a friendly adult who keeps your toddler safe and entertained while you go to work; instead, since 2008, they have been required to demonstrate that they are adhering to an educational curriculum (the Early Years Foundation Stage) as well as following numerous other health and safety checks and procedures.

To take just one example, if a childminder regularly provides meals, snacks or drinks to the children in their care — or even just reheats or cuts up food brought by parents — they have to register with the Food Standards Agency. Food safety reviews must be completed four times a year, in which problems such as “found a pack of sliced ham out of date in the fridge” and the action taken (“threw the ham away”) are reported.

Levels of regulation have a tendency to ratchet upwards. Each individual proposal is justified with the well-being or safety of children in mind, and nobody wants to be the one to advocate for children to be put at risk of food poisoning.

It’s only when this paperwork is looked at in totality that it begins to look like death by a thousand papercuts. People’s time is not an infinite resource, and wasting it is not free: it is a cost which is eventually passed on to parents. The more childcare-provider-hours have to be spent filling in “food safety action sheets”, the more parents will have to pay for childcare. And the more onerous it is to become and remain a childcare provider, the fewer people will do so. The number of childminders registered in the UK has fallen by almost half in less than a decade: from 57,400 in 2012 down to just 31,200 in 2021. This of course means that the childcare places that remain are both harder to source and more expensive.

In an interview with the Guardian, Labour’s education secretary Bridget Phillipson has said that she is “determined to deliver graduate-led nurseries” in an effort to “raise the standing of the sector, [and] make it part of the education system”. This is emblematic of the counterproductive attitudes afflicting this policy area.

It seems the gravity of the situation has not sunk in

How exactly will a shift towards making childcare a career in which you need a degree help with catastrophically bad staff retention? How will it make childcare cheaper, easier, and simpler to provide? And — though this isn’t directly related to the childcare issue — how will encouraging even more people to obtain degrees as a box-ticking exercise help either public finances or the degree-takers themselves, given that lower-paid graduates can expect to spend their whole careers saddled with student loan debt that they never pay off?

It seems the gravity of the situation has not sunk in if this is what Labour sees as a priority. The issue is not that there are not enough graduates working in the childcare sector. The issue is that, as things stand, millions of young Brits cannot afford to reproduce. A party that recognised the urgency of this problem would be slashing red tape and focusing on fixing the dysfunctional housing market that makes all services including childcare more expensive, instead of engaging in counterproductive “we are doing something” signalling.

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