In March 2017, the government announced the details of its policy of 30 hours free childcare for three and four-year-olds. The idea is to support parents who are already working, wanting to return to work, or wanting to increase their hours.
But the results of the trial study [pdf] of the policy are in. And far from being “free” and “supportive”, the scheme looks to be just another cash cow for private companies; with the majority of parents actually having to pay for the childcare anyway.
Nothing is free in Tory Britain
The Department for Education (DfE) has published a report [pdf] into the scheme. It had been trialing the 30 hours free childcare in eight local authority areas since September 2016. The scheme is designed to give 1,140 hours free childcare a year to parents who earn at least £120 a week, or those who get certain benefits.
The DfE said [pdf p14] that 57% of the 5,000 childcare places were from private companies. And it’s here where the problems arose. According to the report:
- 55% of parents said [pdf p19] that the “free entitlement places involved payment for additional charges”. Specifically:
- Providers were concerned [pdf p15] not only about the “financial viability” of the scheme, but also “staff retention and recruitment difficulties”.
- Only 30% of providers could [pdf p17] “definitely” create more free childcare places. The DfE also warned [pdf p17] about the reliability of its study, due to it being carried out during term time. So the reality could be worse.
- “Tensions” occurred [pdf p18] between different types of providers.
- 40% of providers reported [pdf p20] that profits fell after starting the scheme.
- 42% of parents said [pdf p22] they didn’t use the additional childcare hours.
- Only 1% of mothers started work after [pdf p24] the childcare scheme began, while 23% reported that they increased their working hours. This was versus 1% and 9% of fathers, respectively.
Childcare for the rich
In June, the Education Director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Andreas Schleicher, criticised the scheme for failing to target the poorest families. And the DfE report appears to back up this view, saying [pdf p19] that providers’:
practices around charging and restrictions limited the extent to which parents could benefit from the offer. And there was particular concern for the impact these practices had on lower income families. However, it was very difficult for [council] staff to “interfere” with providers’ business decisions… [because] interference could threaten a provider’s financial viability.
Also, evidence from the DfE study appears to compound this issue. Because it found [pdf p21/22] that, of the parents using the childcare:
- 52% had degrees.
- 34% had income between £32,000 and £52,000.
- 33% earned over £52,000.
- 46% were couples with a father already working full time and a mother already working part time.
- 31% were couples with a father and mother both already working full time.
- Just 10% were part-time working single parents and 5% were full-time working single parents.
But there was also positive news about the scheme in the report. The DfE said that:
- 58% of parents said [pdf p25] they had “slightly” more disposable income.
- 26% said [pdf p25] they had “much more” money to spend.
- 62% of providers noted [pdf p20] that the additional childcare had not cost them any more.
- 20% of providers said [pdf p18] they partnered with others to provide childcare.
- Four months into [pdf p17] the trial, “the number of places delivered had basically met or exceeded the allocated numbers”.
Education, education, education?
The challenge facing parents is summed up in one statistic [pdf p14]: 43% of childcare providers joined the scheme because “they saw it as a good business opportunity”.
The DfE trial shows a policy designed for the better-off; one which benefits private companies and leaves children and parents down the pecking order. So parents could have a shock when the government rolls out the full policy in September. Because there may not be a brave new world with the opportunities of work waiting for them; but a half-baked scheme that benefits the already privileged. Much like the majority of Conservative policies.
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