The plans to expand childcare provision for pre-school children has been met with a mixed response from nursery providers and parents.
Jeremy Hunt announced in the Spring Budget last week he wanted to ease the burden of juggling early years childcare and working, but a think tank has voiced its concerns around a funding gap in the Chancellor’s plans.
The government has allocated £204 million in 2023-4 to help solve the problem, reduced the staff-to child ratios from 1:4 to 1:5 to match Scotland and announced start-up grants for childminders.
It was also announced by 2027, children aged between nine months and three years will be entitled to 30 hours of free childcare.
But The Women’s Budget Group (WBG), who have praised these initial steps, said: “Anything less [than a £9.4bn total] risks worsening the sustainability crisis of the early years sector, which has been underfunded for far too long.”
The network of organisations, academics and policy experts which focus on the impact of governmental policy on women have identified a funding gap a £5.2 billion, needed to cover the cost of ensuring that the correct staff training and resources are in place for the free childcare hours proposed.
They said: “It is even more important now that the funding for the free hours of childcare covers the true costs of delivering them.”
Research by the Office for Budget and Responsibility forecasting state the new plans could see an employment increase by 60,000 by the financial year of 2027/28.
But with more and more women being encouraged back into the workforce, nurseries will inevitably face pressure to accommodate an increasing number of children. This could present issues surrounding quality care, staffing, and overcrowding.
A Sheffield nursery manager, who wishes to remain anonymous, said childcare settings have been chronically and knowingly underfunded by the government. She claims the new plans are insufficient and likely to result in loss of quality care.
She explained how those paying for childcare are charged at the higher rates to make the setting sustainable, but if all childcare is funded then the system won’t be able to cope.
The nursery manager also criticised the government for focusing largely on offering parents a lifeline, rather than the impact this will have on children’s lives, stating: “Never once did anyone talk about the children”.
The nursery manager also explained staff are leaving the industry to work in supermarkets, including Aldi, for more money.
However, Jeremy Hunt’s announcement was welcomed by parents from across Yorkshire.
Charlotte Thompson, 30, a midwife and mum from Leeds, felt a great sense of financial relief when she heard the budget announcement, explaining how the change will allow her the freedom to return to work and maintain a social life.
She said: “With childcare costs as high as they are, it seemed as though I was having to sacrifice [my son’s] time at nursery to maintain financial stability at home.”
Ms Thompson feels her limited budget meant having no choice but to limit his interaction with other children.
Mother-of-two and midwife, Sophie Taylor, 30, from West Yorkshire, echoed this point. She praised the plan’s ability to reduce the financial burden of childcare costs, but remains sceptical about where the increased money and infrastructure will come from during the current economic crisis.
It was declared the plans will come into effect in April 2024, meaning parents and legal guardians will have to bear the financial burden for another year.
Holly Essex, 37, a midwife from West Yorkshire, is expecting her first baby in the next couple of weeks.
She said: “Childcare is extremely expensive in the UK, so even though my husband and I are both in well-paid jobs, how we pay for childcare is still a big concern.”
While the plans may be welcomed by some parents, others have expressed frustration at the government for pressuring mums to send their children into childcare.
Twitter user, @DrSpock_PhD, highlighted studies promoting the importance of children spending time with their parents in their earliest years.
Mother-of-two, Michelle Rossi, 41, from West Sussex, agrees. She believes the Budget should have reduced essential living costs so mums can afford to work part-time, or not at all during the first five years of their child’s life. For her, this Budget is a short-term solution to have more people in work paying tax.
“We must invest in our young. And that’s not putting them in full-time, underfunded babysitting services with inexperienced childcare,” she said.
Another critic of the government’s proposed free childcare scheme has called the income qualifier for receiving the childcare “illogical”. If two parents earn £95,000 each they are entitled to free childcare under the chancellor’s rules, but if one parent is on £100,000 and another on £20,000, they would lose the free entitlement altogether.
Dan Neidle, founder of Tax Policy Associates, argued parents earning over £100k will see a significant drop in their disposable income. For him, high salary earners should have the choice to work the hours they want to, despite their level of income.
He said on Twitter: “You may say we shouldn’t care about people earning £100k. You’re wrong. Doctors, IT consultants, air traffic controllers… If we are deterring them from working additional hours then I think that’s a big problem.”
This leaves the question – does Mr Hunt’s childcare reforms advance gender equality in work, or does it fail to recognise the nuances of parenthood and the requirements of women across the UK?