A large body of research evidence shows that good quality childcare makes a big difference to children’s start in life. However, according to new research published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, many children do not have access to childcare of a sufficient standard to achieve good developmental outcomes.
Children, especially those under three, the study argues, often do not receive childcare from highly qualified staff. This is important because evidence from research such as the IOE’s Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education programme (EPPSE) indicates that higher staff qualifications contribute significantly to a preschool setting’s quality. The implication is, therefore, that youngsters who miss out on top quality staff are likely to fall behind youngsters who don’t.
But could the problem relate to childcare workers’ shockingly low pay?
Our new study, Provision and Use of Preschool Childcare in Britain, shows that qualifications are actually rising for all types of childcare staff – but wages have remained low. Childcare workers, on average, are paid only ten pence an hour above the national minimum wage.
Alongside this we found that the workforce is shrinking. The low wages documented by our team at the IOE’s Thomas Coram Research Unit could encourage even more staff to leave the sector, especially those with higher qualifications. If this happens, still more families would be unable to access good quality childcare, and more children would fall behind.
Research suggests ‘good’ childcare improves children’s long-term outcomes, enables more parents, especially mothers, to work and it reduces pressures on family finances, which together help reduce the effects of poverty on families.
Raising childcare staff wages, however, is not straightforward. Without some other source of income, increased staff pay would lead to higher fees, which many parents would be unable to afford.
The Rowntree report suggests parents are increasingly struggling to afford current childcare costs, especially in London. This is why its authors importantly argue that parental contributions towards childcare fees should be removed altogether for parents with an income below a poverty threshold. Parents’ difficulties are likely to be made worse by the welfare cuts for families (e.g. capping the total amount households can receive and cuts to child tax credit) and also the recent caps on childcare spending which will reduce the number of families eligible for free childcare. These changes will especially affect large families and those living in high rent areas, where costs are only likely to be met by housing benefit and child benefit.
The Rowntree report also highlights the importance of flexibility in childcare provision, pointing out in particular that low income families have less access to flexible childcare. Our TCRU study found that, despite policies to increase the use of formal childcare provision, around half of families use more than one type of childcare. Many parents combine informal care by friends and family with formal childcare, such as nurseries and playgroups. For example, we found that more than a third of childcare is provided by grandparents.
This mix-and-match pattern of childcare use probably occurs because formal childcare alone is not meeting the needs of parents – especially those working non-standard hours, such as nurses or shift workers. The Rowntree report rightly raises concerns that a lack of access to flexible childcare may force parents to choose low-quality part-time jobs, trade down roles or leave work altogether, putting more families at risk of poverty.
The recent government policy of extending free childcare provision from 15 to 30 hours for three and four year olds will not improve the situation. We argue in our report that the amount that providers receive for these ‘free’ hours in many cases does not cover their costs. Providers will not be able to make up the deficit by charging other parents higher fees, as this could cause them to simply give up using formal childcare. This would put the viability of many childcare providers at risk.
To address concerns around affordable, high quality childcare we need adequate financing to meet current costs and to improve the poor pay of an increasingly professionalised staff. Furthermore, there are significant gaps in state supported benefits for parents who are looking for work or building skills through education and training, so that these parents currently face a greater risk of poverty.