In the great election giveaway, our main parties are outbidding each other to offer more free childcare, but neglecting parents who wish to care for their own young children at home. Free childcare encourages parents to entrust their babies and toddlers to professionals and return to work. It penalises parents who would prefer to do the job of raising their children themselves. These policies reveal a failure of imagination and threaten to skew parental choice.
I’m a first-time mum to a one year old and I’ve experienced for myself the chasm of social support between the end of parental leave and the start of the school term following a child’s third birthday, when they become eligible for at least 15 hours of free childcare per week (more if both parents are working). Aware of parents facing the crunch, the parties are now vying to narrow this gap. Labour says it will extend paid maternity leave to one year. The SNP matches this pledge and wants to extend overall shared parental leave too.
Yet once parental leave ends, our largest parties only pledge support for one option: institutionalised care.
Labour is promising 30 hours of free childcare per week to all children from the age of two. The Liberal Democrats go further, offering 35 hours of free childcare per week for all children from the age of two for more weeks of the year, and will make this available to babies from nine months old with working parents. Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, is proposing free full-day childcare for 1-3 year olds. The Conservative Party is more vague on the matter, but it has indicated it wants to extend the provision of childcare beyond school hours and term times.
While these proposals would aid parents struggling with childcare costs, where’s the help for parents who would like to look after their toddlers at home? There is still none.
As if it needs repeating, young children require full-time care; looking after them is a full-time job. This is why a friend took to wearing a badge emblazoned with the words ‘Every Mum is a Working Mum’.
If, as a parent, I choose to share part of that care with a childcare professional then Labour and the Liberal Democrats both say the state should help pay the bill. But if I want to fulfil that job myself beyond nine months or a year, no funds are available.
When I take my baby to story time at my local library alongside fellow unpaid parents, we join professionally employed childminders and nursery staff attending with their little charges. Society attributes no financial value to parenting, despite rewarding the job when outsourced. Is it any wonder that parents feel devalued? Why can’t I seem to land the job of looking after my own child, for which I am surely the most qualified candidate?
Only one party has an alternative offer: the Green Party. Its manifesto recommends a Universal Basic Income of £89 per week, paid to all adults, plus additional weekly supplements per child. Under that proposal, I’d receive £159 weekly and be empowered with a real choice: I could spend that money on professional childcare, or I could use it to reimburse myself, a relative or a trusted friend to look after my child at home. Or I could do a bit of everything. I could decide what best suits me and my baby, and feel supported in that choice.
Finland already provides parents with a real choice. The Finnish government offers a “Child Home Care Allowance” for parents who don’t wish to put their children into daycare, which is currently around €340 per month for one child under three years, with further supplements added according to family income. It also offers municipal daycare or an allowance for parents using private daycare. Parents choose the type of support that works for them.
Over a decade ago, a report from the Policy Exchange think tank advocated paying a universal Parental Care Allowance to parents with children under three. The authors argued that it could reduce the social pressure on parents to return to work quickly and recognise the role of parents who stay at home to care for their children. The money could be regarded as a wage for childcare at home, as a partial replacement for earnings forgone, or as a subsidy for purchased childcare services that enable the parent to return to work, full-time or part-time.
So why hasn’t the idea gained traction? Being a universal benefit, it’s more expensive, so that’s undoubtedly deterred parties from adopting it. Policymakers seem to favour policies which drive both parents back to work as soon as possible. And yes, I love my job (and currently research and write whenever my toddler sleeps) – but there is more to life than work. Watching my baby grow will be the deepest joy of my life. These precious early years go vanishingly quickly.
After this general election, if the manifestos are sincere, we must expect a mass expansion of nursery provision in this country. Should I seek work inside a childcare setting and then enrol my child, so that I can still pay my bills while watching him grow? After all, it’s too late to move to Finland.