In the summer of 1947, 35 mothers locked themselves into a Yorkshire children’s centre to protest against its closure. Having expanded nursery provision to enable women to join the war effort, the government drastically scaled back. In four years, around 500 council-run nurseries were shut. Then, as now, women knew what this meant for their prospects. They were recast in their traditional role as carers, and lost their financial independence.
Childcare has remained one of the gaps in the welfare state ever since. While the UK is relatively generous towards new mothers, with maternity leave and free prescriptions and dentistry for a year after birth, the state has never stumped up the investment necessary to ensure that parents are able to keep on working from when their children stop being babies until they start school. In England, cuts in public provision combined with privatisation and price rises have made a difficult situation worse, with fees for under-twos doubling since 2010 (the devolved administrations are all more generous, and the number of free nursery hours in Scotland has doubled). At the end of this month a March of the Mummies, organised by the pressure group Pregnant Then Screwed, aims to push the issue up the agenda and persuade ministers to do more to support flexible working and part-time jobs.
So far, the signs are that Liz Truss and her colleagues have their eyes and ears shut. Having had her idea of reducing ratios in childcare settings knocked back more than a decade ago, Ms Truss is now considering even more radical deregulation. One proposal is to scrap ratios altogether, so that providers decide how many children each adult can care for. Another, floated by a rightwing thinktank, would see existing entitlements to free part-time nursery places withdrawn. A third idea under discussion is to give nursery funding to parents instead, to spend where they choose – a measure that would further destabilise an already fragile sector.
While the lack of provision for most one- and two-year-olds is the most glaring omission under current arrangements, it is not the only one. Even once children start school, there are 13 weeks each year when schools are closed. All year round, school days end in the mid-afternoon – by which time younger children are often exhausted. Even in term-time, many parents struggle to combine jobs with family commitments. A recent 5% increase in the number of women not working because they are looking after relatives is the first such rise in at least 30 years. And 86% of lone parents are mothers.
Almost 25 years since the launch of its flagship Sure Start programme, here is a fresh opportunity for Labour. The Institute for Public Policy Research has crunched the numbers, and says increased entitlements could be delivered for as little as £900m a year (or around twice as much if all pre-schoolers in England were offered 30 hours). It also proposes an enhanced role for local authorities. One of the problems with childcare is that it is not treated as vital social infrastructure, meaning provision is not planned into new neighbourhoods in the way that schools are.
This is a nonsensical situation and a sexist one, given the weight of evidence that women pay the price when societies refuse to organise childcare collectively. As with other caring professions, and teaching, a more strategic approach to the mostly female early years workforce is also needed. Currently, they are underpaid and underqualified. It is a dangerous fantasy that “the market” can meet all these human challenges without clear direction from politicians. Unfortunately, it is one that the current government is unlikely to drop. Parents and their supporters should keep up the pressure.