This year, like many other parents of small children, I’m super excited to see my childcare bill almost halved due to the introduction of free early learning and childcare (ELC), covering around 30 hours of care a week during term time. For the past 6 years, we’ve been paying around £1000 a month on childcare, and for the first time in a long time, this is going to *just* £500 a month. Just!
Decisions like these by national government have huge every day impacts on the lives of children, young people and families, and whilst it doesn’t go all the way (just yet) it’s a step closer to improving the lives of all of us.
When Government makes policy decisions based on children and young people; on people, not profit, it changes the flow of all the intended and unintended consequences thereafter. It changes how we think about poverty, service delivery, urban spaces, and about shared parenting.
Two indicators of child poverty are having two children under 5 and childcare expenses. With most families living in poverty also in work, relieving the costs of childcare, and introducing wrap around early years education in school nurseries will help many children and families to mitigate some of the impacts of poverty. By the time children in poverty reach school they are already hurrying to catch up with their middle-class classmates. Whether it’s food insecurity, access to paid activities or living in poor housing, the education gap is growing because of child poverty.
If more children are in early years settings, the question then is, what does this look like and how do we value it? The staff working in early years spaces are predominately young women, often earning apprenticeship wages of around £3.90, increasing to minimum wage when they’re qualified. But if we value early years childcare as a potential pressure point for systems change- for contributing to alleviating child poverty, closing the attainment gap, for tackling inequality, then the next step is paying these workers appropriately.
Modern early years childcare and education is increasingly interested in forest schooling and play based learning, recognising that nature and nurture go hand in hand. Connecting children with free, wild spaces to play, has huge impacts on them as individuals, their families, our environments and our cities. If we recognise that forest schooling and free play are essential tools in promoting holistic wellbeing, then our cities start to look quite different.
Where can children play? How safe are they? And how do we recognise the realities of how parks are used? Parks are importance sites for connection for many groups of people; children, those rough sleeping, drug users, teenagers and others, so how do we acknowledge this? Who has a right to use the park and urban woodlands? And what happens if you cut services to vulnerable groups- where are people supposed to go in their own city, if not the park? If our cities are built around cars and shops, how focused are we on play and leisure?
The last point is that funded ELC will have a huge impact on equality at home and at work. Whilst we have made great legislative change to support working mothers, cultural change is very slow to catch up. With all carers squeezing themselves in to outdated (masculine) models of work, fathers continuing to out-earn their partners, and “mum guilt” rather than dad guilt entering our everyday language, women are doing more work both inside and outside the home than ever before. But my feeling is an increase in ELC will see a gradual uptake of paternity leave provision, freeing families from some of the financial pressures of childrearing. Once more men take part in equitable childcare, our cultural understanding of what it means to care and it’s value will shift dramatically.
Funded ELC is not just a great thing for my bank balance, it’s a great thing for all of us- whether we’re parents or not. Early years education is crucial for many reasons, and this policy acknowledges the vital role it plays in tackling some of our deepest social problems.
This is why I'm organising a round table with parents to explore what some of the challenges are with current childcare provision, what the solutions might be, and who can help. Whether it's exploring co-operative models of service delivery, childcare as systems change or links to urban planning, there's so much potential for radical change in doing this work. Date and place to be confirmed- but watch this space!