How do you solve a problem like Childcare?

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How do you solve a problem like Childcare?

Caroline Masundire gives her take on the eternal challenges of childcare and where some opportunities lie for innovation.

Two years ago,  I published a blog called Goodbye Childcare, Hello Freedom which charted the challenges I faced as single parent organising childcare in the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s.  Reflecting back on this and my subsequent blog on the Government’s childcare strategy, More Great Childcare, I have put some thoughts together on the challenges of developing and supporting childcare, which cannot be resolved just by extending free provision in early years or pump priming new provision.  Since the 90s, the childcare sector has been subject to a lot of change:

  • Initiatives and some investment from government and regional agencies e.g. extended schools (labour) which attempted to incentivise schools to offer wraparound childcare, through to current Government investment to pump-prime start up provision with a micro grant, the extended free childcare offer which provides 15 hours of free childcare a week and childcare tax credits.  Many of the regional development agencies prior to their demise in 2011, established regional childcare investment programmes and some back to work programmes offered unemployed individuals a childcare subsidy paid to providers to help them manage their transition into work;
  • Professionalisation of the childcare workforce through vocational qualifications and accreditation which has become an integral part of the regulatory assessment of quality childcare but has had a subsequent impact on the cost to run childcare provision;
  • The changing role of local authorities moving from an assessment and regulation role to becoming stewards of the local childcare market, identifying and supporting the development of provision through Childcare Sufficiency Assessments, their requirements around Children and Young People and Economic Wellbeing and their role as brokers of childcare information through their Family Information Services including access to online information;
  • The change to employment conditions (atypical hours, zero hour contracts, short term contracts) and working hours of parents has placed a demand on providers to become more flexible in their childcare offer.  However the pace of that change is hindered by the cost to provide what parents need compared to the scale at which those costs can be recovered through requirements around staff to children ratios.

In short there has been a lot of specific investment in developing provision and some tinkering around the edges, but it still remains a big problem. On top of these challenges recent policy influences are also having a big impact:

  • Welfare reform and the move for parents on Income Support to Job Seekers Allowance once their youngest child reaches school age has increased demand for out of school childcare;
  • National Minimum Wage (NMW)  and commitments to a Living Wage impact both on parental income and the costs of running provision;
  • Potential impacts of Universal Credit (UC) on household income as well as areas such as London where housing costs are significantly impacting on costs of living and affordability.  This in turn is forcing families to move out to more affordable areas to live, extending their commuting time and need for childcare outside of core hours (8am-6pm).

Understanding the tensions between what parents need and what is provided

I think many actors with an interest in childcare understand the tensions but find it hard to resolve the challenge around what parents need and what can they afford against what can the market supply that is both affordable and sustainable for the provider.

We cannot escape the fact that decisions about childcare are complex, something I feel policymakers often ignore.  Parents have to make judgements based on what is Available – around the age of the child (ren) and at times to suit, what is Accessible – where is it and how does it fit around travel to work and finally what is Affordable.  I refer to this as the three A’s which determine parental choice (something we used in sufficiency assessments back in the 00s.

For example look at the needs of a parent with a school age child of eight years and a baby of seven months.  Their childcare has to fit around the school day for the eight year old, so needs to be near or at the school, whereas there is more flexibility for options for the baby for which location is not a ‘dealbreaker’.  In this scenario (which reflects my own experience) the parent has limited choices.  If the school does not provide wrap around care nor has a nursery attached, the formal childcare available will likely be a local childminder that offers places for both under and over 5s and covers school runs to this school.

Another example is for a single parent on in-work benefits with three school aged children under 10 that works five days a week part-time on National Minimum Wage during the school day and does not need to rely on childcare during term time.  Yet during school holidays the parent has to find childcare to cover those hours and find the money to pay for childcare costs for the three children – making childcare unaffordable and out of reach.

What these examples also highlight are the challenges facing providers and local authorities in terms of addressing the different kinds of choices parents have to make based on their varying needs and circumstances.  Whilst quality of the provision is at the fore front of parental concerns, choice is also determined by the practicality of using the options available.  Sufficiency assessments provide an overview of need and offer at a local authority perspective, but providers need to have assurances around that they can cover costs and remain sustainable and profitable.  So it is unsurprising that there is a lack of choice; providers are guided by simple market forces and will offer provision where they can be assured of income, often resulting in lots of provision of early care and lack of provision in wrap around and out of school care.  The latter need is often met and supported through informal childcare which although affordable and often free is less reliable and breaks down.

Some opportunities for innovation

There are opportunities to look to innovation to address gaps both in terms of diversification of provision and collective action by local agencies to support the childcare market.  Here are my top two!

Innovation 1 – From Atypical to typical

There are significant opportunities for formalising the informal market for atypical provision. Atypical working hours describe working patterns which do not fall within the 8am – 6pm standard hours, and includes shift work, irregular hours, over-time, being ‘on call’, and weekend work.  Commuting (common to London workers) can also turn a typical working day into one of atypical hours; 16% of working people in London travel for over an hour to get to and from their workplace.

Research conducted by the Resolution Foundation suggested that “[c]urrent market failure in the provision of childcare outside core hours and international examples of best practice indicate that there may be a broader role for government in developing a childcare market that is responsive to the needs of parents working atypical hours”. A survey from the Daycare Trust highlighted that 53% of parents reported problems accessing childcare before 8am and 66% had problems accessing childcare after 6pm.  It also showed that only 9% of local authorities in England reported “sufficient childcare” for children of parents with atypical work patterns.

Research also shows the difficulty of demonstrating demand to be a major factor in establishing atypical childcare. The demand for atypical childcare can be untested because parents are not aware that there is even an option to request this from their local authorities. As a result, the “majority of parents, particularly those from low income groups, fill this gap with informal childcare” (Daycare Trust) – that is, grandparents, friends and other family. However, this is not always possible, particularly for migrant families without a support network, and this kind of support is not a long-term solution as informal care is more likely to break down.  The development of using innovation in atypical provision is challenging but achievable, both in terms of modelling a sustainable solution (a business model we developed for the London Borough of Brent which focused on an estate based solution) and facilitating the exchange of childcare services and payments through currency models such as Time Credits for two hours or less.  Both of which need to be ‘close to home’.

Innovation 2- Joint investment focused on assets and shared resources

We know that there is often a disconnect between local actors that have responsibility for the local childcare market and local economy.  Our review of innovation in childcare in Wales highlighted  failures in local authority departments to ‘join the dots’. Departments often make investments in isolation from one another and do not see the connections between their policy and funding decisions.  Closing the gap in perception between economic development and childcare professionals is a key challenge.  Otherwise, it will not be possible to form effective partnerships to deliver more effective use of local assets and resources.  In our view such partnerships have the power to transform how the market operates.   Our key recommendations from this review included the following

There needs to be greater collaboration and working between policy, commissioning and providers to design childcare solutions that better meet the needs of parents and ensure the sustainability of provision.  This may include:

 The sharing of resources and funding for the development of provision, linking into community venues such as schools and helping providers to work together to provide a wider range of services.

    • The sharing of costs and associated administrative burdens of delivering childcare i.e. DBS registrations, management through a managing agent model to bring different providers together.
    • A multi-Agency approach, which is based on more coherent communication between Family Information Services and providers around childcare options to help manage parent expectations of what is childcare and the costs and benefits associated with it and possibly wrapped into wider benefits and money management advice and support”

So what next?

There seems to be very little in the election promises in 2015.  Without having in place a universal childcare offer in the UK (a dream but an impossibility) we can look forward to more tinkering and short term investment, with a bit of regulation thrown in, which has been the default position of all government administrations since before I can remember. Which leaves us with the question. Do we sit back and wait for the next initiative or do we grab the opportunities that innovating our ways of thinking about and working towards solutions present us?  I know which one I prefer.


Follow Caroline on Twitter @evaluationista