Covid-19 shines a light on the fragility of our childcare system

The government cannot expect parents to bail out nurseries - it needs to intervene now

In the past month families across the country have faced unprecedented changes. For some, paid work has stopped and incomes have nosedived. For others, still working at a time when nurseries are closed to most children, there is a daily juggle of balancing caring for their children and continuing to do their jobs. Yet last week many parents received bills for childcare they are not getting. This is not a story about greedy nurseries trying to make money. The coronavirus crisis is shining a light on the fragility and fragmentation of the childcare sector, while leaving parents confused, worried and in some cases under considerable financial pressure.

Stories shared on social media suggest that the range of fees being charged to parents is hugely variable. One mum in north-east London told us that she is bringing up her 14-month-old son on her own and was recently furloughed. She contacted her nursery to ask for a reduction in her April fees, but received a flat no and was told the fees were likely to continue. She decided her only option was to remove her son but was then informed that because she is under contract she has to pay her April fees regardless. She is now concerned that her child won’t have access to childcare after the coronavirus crisis, which will leave her struggling to work.

Nurseries themselves are between a rock and a hard place. They have been campaigning for years for funding that reflects the true costs of delivering quality childcare. Figures released before the crisis show that more than 500 nurseries, pre-schools and childminders closed each month between April 2018 and March 2019. Years of underfunding through the free hours’ policy and reliance on a market place’ approach, rather than state funding for universal access, has left childcare in need of fundamental reform.

A strong, sustainable childcare sector will be vital to parents and the economy after this crisis

Yet the government is offering more of the same. Alongside their wider offer to businesses, they have committed to continue paying the free hours entitlement to childcare settings for all children registered with them, over the next three months. As the sector has long argued, the free hours entitlement doesn’t reflect their real running costs. In the absence of adequate investment, nurseries are turning to parents to ask them to carry the burden of sustaining this essential service by making up the shortfall. The Department for Education has offered no clear guidance, only urging all childcare settings to be reasonable and balanced in their dealings with parents’. The reality, of course, is that many parents will be unwilling or unable to foot these bills. Childcare is often a family’s second biggest expenditure, after rent or mortgage payments. In 2019 the average price of 25 hours of childcare a week for a child under two in a nursery was £127 — rising to £174 in inner London. This is about twice as much as the average household spends on food each week.

Parents and childcare providers are now coming together to call for the government to set up an emergency fund to ensure that parents aren’t charged full fees while nurseries are shut. Their petition has received over 100,000 signatures. This is not an unreasonable ask: in other countries, like Ireland and Australia, governments are stepping in quickly to underwrite all childcare fees to ensure that providers remain secure and can reopen after the crisis, while parents are able to maintain a place for their child without being liable for fees during lockdown.

A strong, sustainable childcare sector will be vital to parents and the economy after this crisis. NEF’s recent research has mapped out the core elements of a high quality, affordable childcare offer for families. Now more than ever we are all reminded of how hard caring work is and how crucial care services are in enabling children to thrive and families to work. The government cannot expect parents to bail out nurseries. They need to intervene now to underwrite childcare fees and ensure nurseries aren’t left turning to parents to foot the bill.

Image: Unsplash

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