The Southwark and Lambeth Childcare Commission was set up to look at how childcare and early years services can better fit around the childcare needs of parents working in London’s dynamic, 24-hour economy, and can better support parents to give their children the best possible start in life.
The commission’s vision for childcare and early years services is twofold. First, they want to see a childcare system that supports parents to move into and remain in employment. A lack of affordable and flexible childcare is a significant barrier to parents moving into work and can keep families trapped in a cycle of poverty, with all its terrible consequences for both parents and children.
Second, they want to see childcare and early years services that reduce the inequality of life chances of children living in both boroughs. Evidence from the social sciences and more recently, neuroscientific research; have shown that children’s experiences and environment in their earliest years are critical in shaping outcomes for the rest of their lives. Children from different social backgrounds start school with very different levels of school readiness, in terms of their physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. For example, some children are not starting school with basic physical skills like being able to use a knife and fork; basic social skills like being able to regulate their behaviour in a class of young children; or the language skills that allow them to communicate with their teacher and the rest of their class at even the most basic of levels.
Of course, investing in quality early years and childcare services does not come cheap but failure to invest in flexible and affordable childcare prevents parents from moving into work, which carries significant costs for the state in terms of means-tested benefits and foregone tax receipts. Moreover, a failure to invest in quality childcare and early years services can lead to greater costs associated with much more expensive catch-up interventions at secondary school, more intensive support services to deal with dysfunctional family environments when children are older, and at the extreme end, the youth justice and prison systems for the children who have been most failed by the system.
The commission believes that if Lambeth and Southwark councils, central government, local employers, the Mayor’s office and parents themselves come together to implement some of the suggestions in their report we will see a real step change.
The commission identified a number of issues with the childcare market in England particularly around flexibility, affordability and quality. These issues are particularly felt in the diverse, central-London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, which are characterised by lower-than-average income and a higher-than-average proportion of parents needing to work atypical hours and who therefore need to access more flexible provision than is offered by schools or childcare centres.
Only 20 per cent of local authorities report that there are sufficient places for children under the age of 2. Many areas also have issues with the availability of provision to enable parents to take up the free two-year old offer including Southwark and Lambeth.
Approximately 38% of registered two year-olds in Lambeth and 25% of registered two-year olds in Southwark are still waiting to access a place. Changes to funding from 2015-16 will also mean that provision for the free two-year-old offer is likely to get worse.
Furthermore, there is a lack of flexible provision to help parents take advantage of the free offer in schools. For example, parents may work part-time and want fixed hours or have training and need very specific hours, but the nursery will say “you can have this that and that: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday.” Part of the reason for this lack of flexibility is that most provision in both boroughs is in centre-based provision rather than with childminders.
Lastly, there is an issue with the availability of wraparound care and holiday provision for parents of school-age children. In order to take up full-time employment parents of school-age children often need to make use of breakfast and after-school clubs, as well as holiday clubs. Without these services parents are often forced to rely upon informal childcare and use their annual leave in order to look after their children during school holidays – such gaps in provision can therefore limit employment opportunities.
Another issue with the childcare market is the great deal of variance in childcare quality, which is reflected by the very different qualifications needed to work in the different sectors. Maintained settings – such as nursery schools and primary schools – offer provision led by early years practitioners that include qualified teachers and nursery nurses, whereas in the private and voluntary sectors, qualification levels tend to be much lower, with low minimum requirements (half of staff working with children must have a GCSE equivalent qualification; supervisory and management staff must have an A-level equivalent qualification). In both Lambeth and Southwark more than 40 per cent of private and voluntary providers do not have highly-qualified staff working directly with children. This means that for parents, the highest quality provision is often the least flexible.
Thirdly, there are problems with affordability, with childcare now estimated to take up to 30 per cent of family budgets in London for families with children under 5. Two in three mothers say the high cost of childcare is a barrier to them working more and although support for costs are available through the tax and benefit system, accessing it is complicated. Many parents lose out because they find the system too complex, because they are simply unaware of this support, or because the system requires parents to pay for childcare themselves upfront to unlock government tax credits and reliefs.
There is much that needs to happen to create a system that works better for parents. Local government can provide the leadership, but genuinely improving access to quality, affordable and flexible childcare will require actions not just from local councils, but from central government, from the London mayor and from the local business community.