Quality childcare for all

Making England's childcare a universal basic service

This short paper sets out a vision for early years provision as a Universal Basic Service (UBS), with an emphasis on the achievement of social goals. It is one of a series of working papers developing proposals for Universal Basic Services.

The childcare system in England is broken. Our nurseries are among the most expensive in the world, while childcare professionals are some of the lowest paid workers in society. Over the past 20 years, policymakers have come up with various interventions in childcare policy. In September 2017, Theresa May’s government introduced 30 hours of free childcare for some three- and four-year-olds. But the policy is badly thought out as well as severely underfunded. Nurseries across the country make use of loopholes to charge parents for additional extras’ like nappies and food, to increase fees for non-government funded hours, and to reduce opening hours. Even more worryingly, 17% of childcare providers in England’s poorest areas are facing closure. The latest data from Ofsted indicates that over 500 nurseries, pre-schools and childminders have closed each month between April 2018 and March 2019.

Childcare as a Universal Basic Service has the potential to transform the lives of children and parents. Extra money alone will not tackle the underlying structural problems of our broken childcare system. Before investing more money, we need to ask where that money is going. 84% of early years provision is now run by private providers, as a consequence of government policies with the express intention of accelerating the marketisation of childcare. From inequalities of access to the risk of collapse from debt-fuelled expansion, the evidence shows that we cannot trust the care of our children to unaccountable, profit-driven companies.

Change need not entail a top-down restructuring led by central government. We argue for an approach that meets this shared need by exercising collective responsibility. This requires policy interventions that ensure true universality by approaching childcare as a Universal Basic Service (UBS) for all children from the end of paid maternity leave.


  1. Increase investment in childcare and shift it to subsidise supply rather than demand. The government should directly fund providers to deliver free or affordable childcare for all children, from the end of paid maternity leave, to the start of compulsory schooling.
  2. Support a democractic childcare sector by increasing the role of local authorities, co-operatives and not – for-profit providers. Remove the guidance in the 2006 Childcare Bill that restricts the role of local authorities in providing childcare. Stop the sale of public nurseries on the open market and increase investment in maintained nurseries to ensure they are able to develop and expand provision. Give local authorities the right to buy existing nurseries at point of sale. Incentivise a shift to worker-owned provision by introducing a worker buy-out option at the point of sale of nurseries. Ensure that 10% of all local authority investment goes to co-operatives or not-for-profit providers. Improve access to patient forms of capital for the co-operative, mutual and social enterprise sector. Establish an umbrella organisation for childcare co-operatives as part of a new co-operative development agency.
  3. Ensure better pay, protections and a collective voice for childcare workers. Require childcare providers to be living wage employers in order to access public funding. Ensure that all childcare professionals have training and salaries comparable to primary school staff. Ensure all nurseries recognise a union for childcare workers and support staff to join. Develop sectoral bargaining for employees in the childcare and early learning sector.
  4. Implement these changes via a regulatory framework in the form of a Charter for Childcare’. It would be necessary for providers to demonstrate that they are implementing the framework in order to access public funding.

The current approach to childcare means that the state is significantly subsidising the private sector. The likely trajectory of policy is that this subsidy will increase. This creates an opportunity for profit making that is at odds with the social purpose of childcare. It is time for childcare to be recognised as a Universal Basic Service. At the very least the state should be driving a much harder regulatory bargain with providers to ensure that all those receiving subsidies deliver a clear social mission. The aim of future childcare policy should be to reshape the sector so that the extraction of private profits (and therefore of public subsidy) is, over time, removed altogether and replaced with a partnership approach in which the state, care workers and parents interests are aligned in new types of ownership structures to deliver a clear social mission. Without wholesale reform of the system, more free childcare risks continuing to exploit workers and shut out lower income families.

Image: Pexels

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