Recent headlines warning that nurseries face ‘mass closures’ as a result of the coronavirus pandemic should be a cause for concern for society at large. Regardless of whether an individual has nursery-age children, the current existential threat to the early-years care sector is tantamount to the risk of seeing one of our emergency services collapse. And this is not an exaggeration.
A survey conducted by Childcare Champions found that 36% of working parents responding between 22-28 May this year believed that they would not be able to go back to work if their childcare provider was unable to offer them a space. When you also consider that nearly 15% of UK families (2.9 million) are headed by a single parent, the urgent need for accessible childcare in order to keep our economy functioning is thrust into focus.
And though many parents have been reluctant to send children back to nurseries and childminders now that they have begun reopening, this does not mean that most of these parents think that keeping their small children at home long term is a sustainable solution.
Indeed, the past few months have exposed staggering inequalities between men and women in the number of hours of childcare undertaken whilst nurseries and schools have been closed. Not only are more than 85% of lone parent families headed by a woman, but within households with a male and female parent, women have spent an average of 2.3 hours more per day looking after children, and an average of 1.7 hours more each day on housework.
While the need for everybody to stay at home for some months has meant that children have usually been in the company of responsible adults, this has come at no insignificant cost, with Sam Smethers of the Fawcett Society suggesting that the effects of the lockdown could reduce decades of progress on women’s participation in the labour market.
What is most insidious about all this is the way that early years childcare provision has been organised for so long. Instead of treating nurseries and childminders as essential services, providers are seen as businesses. Though the government originally agreed to continue to fund free childcare places for two and three year olds even if those children were not in attendance in their early-years setting (this would have allowed providers to continue paying rents and unavoidable business costs), it swiftly made a u-turn on this decision. Instead of honouring its commitment to fund free childcare places for all providers, the government diverted funding so that only providers which remained open (not a feasible option for many) were able to access it.
In the meantime, nurseries are expected to continue to operate as solvent businesses, despite seeing access to furlough funding (which most businesses have been entitled to) restricted. If these nurseries weather the storm, then good for them. If not, that’s just too bad.
But if nurseries close, the infrastructure to provide childcare that so many working parents rely on just simply will not be there. Childcare is not just an industry – it is an essential service that enables our economy and modern family structures. Without it, the very nature of modern family life is at risk. But because childcare is typically perceived as a service that mainly relieves women of a job that would usually fall to them, it perhaps is not respected as the essential service it is.
But just like schooling and healthcare, early years childcare should be enabled to operate like a service. Just as with schooling and healthcare, if the early years childcare sector were to collapse, we would see the very foundations that our society relies upon threatened.
But as long as the childcare industry is treated purely as a collection of small businesses and franchises, we will always find that its existence is imperilled at times of crisis – and this will only further compound the crisis at hand. This is the ultimate fiscal irresponsibility from the government; in treating childcare as disposable, it increases the chance of a huge hole being left at the core of society’s essential operations.
Parents who cannot find nursery places for their children are struggling. Either they cannot leave them at home to go to work, or they find themselves struggling to work effectively from home. And if people cannot work effectively, any semblance of work-life balance is eroded. Instead of feeling in control, people feel hopeless: fearful that they will lose their jobs or see income reductions; working late hours to coincide with their children’s sleeping hours; under constant stress and anxiety. This is not a state of being that can be sustained.
And so the government needs to act now. An emergency rescue package must be put in place to save a service that so many rely on. A service that will need more funding in the months ahead as it attempts to operate safely. If early-years provision is not saved, the consequences will be felt throughout society: in our gender pay gap, in our birth rates, and in our national happiness.