Flexible families - Does childcare expansion tackle inequality or make it worse?
Without flexibility, parents can't enter the workforce. And will early years education suffer?
The Scottish Government increased the number of free childcare in Scotland to 600 hours a year, and all parties have indicated they plan to add to that in their 2016 Holyrood manifestos. This will simultaneously grow the economy and tackle inequality, politicians say.
Questions remain about how many parents are being enabled to enter the workplace, however. Local authorities who were providing half-day places in council nurseries during term-time have generally added forty minutes to each session, which means three and four year olds are now occupied for three hours and ten minutes, compared with the previous two and a half hour slots.
This has left many parents with no choice but to turn down their entitlement and pay for more flexible private providers.
In Glasgow, the Fair Funding for Our Kids campaign petitioned the council to fund those providers, but with little success. Spokeswoman Jenny Gorevan says it was a frustrating experience.
“The council just said to us ‘we’ve fulfilled our legal obligation to provide a place for every child, and we can’t afford to go any further than that, basically, we don’t have money. But the government says to us they’ve given them the right amount of money, they’re just not choosing to spend it in the right place,” she tells Holyrood.
“Clearly this level of provision isn’t going to help anyone back into work. Many working families find they simply can’t use the nursery place offered to them, so hearing the policy being described as a ‘massive success story’ is galling to say the least,” she adds.
Gorevan says working parents are being made to choose between working and the quality of education for their children. “In the most part council nurseries are better for education because they do employ teachers and more qualified staff and pay them better, and generally the quality in council nurseries is excellent, but for working parents we can’t access that. We’re forced into the private sector because the hours offered in nurseries aren’t usable for us,” she says. Private providers also tend not to operate in more deprived areas, she points out.
If quality early years education is only available to those working parents who can afford it, could there be a danger of widening the education attainment gap? Emergent thought reveals the gap in literacy and numeracy levels is prevalent by primary one.
"Hearing the policy being described as a ‘massive success story’ is galling to say the least"
Jackie Brock, Children in Scotland chief executive, says while political commitment to expand childcare has been a “fantastic achievement”, it is not tackling systemic inequality.
“The families who are generally going to be fine anyway in the education system are accessing excellent quality childcare from the start. It’s built in.”
Brock welcomes the Scottish Government’s investment, but adds: “We cannot say it is going to be instrumental in tackling inequality unless we look at a far more radical programme.”
The Commission for Childcare Reform, led by Children in Scotland and the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), recently published its interim report which started to look at what a radical programme might look like.
The commission’s chairman, Colin MacLean, a former Director of Financial Strategy for the Scottish Government, says parents shouldn’t have to trade quality for flexibility.
The report, he says, is about finding the most effective way of investing money. The commission spoke to “thousands of different people”, he says, including over 1,000 parents. Childcare, the report concluded, should maintain quality for the child and be flexible.
“Parents need to be flexible around what they do and how they do it, the employer should be flexible to enable their staff to manage their childcare, and the childcare provider needs to be flexible if the parent needs an extra shift, because if they’re going for an interview, they need to know that’ll be provided by the provider who sees the child for the rest of the week. It’s not possible for any one of these to manage all of the flexibility,” says MacLean.
A political bidding war to increase the hours of childcare provision will not solve the problem, the report suggests. Instead, the funding should be used to ensure full week provision exists. “We’re suggesting a week is 50 hours – an eight-hour shift plus two hours for travelling and so on. That should last the whole year. The funding for providers should be designed to ensure that exists and within that, then, the Government will decide what amount of funding it should make available,” he says.
The amount parents would pay would then be capped based on income and price, MacLean suggests, and introduced gradually. In the meantime, funding should be targeted on the youngest and poorest children, “but with a view to moving towards over time an agreed long-term vision”.
Jackie Brock remains optimistic. “We think with some changes in relation to where the funding is coming from, with consultation between the UK and Scottish governments, and a far more efficient way of managing childcare provision, we can do this,” she says.
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