Thursday briefing: How to tackle the crumbling early-years childcare crisis

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Good morning. Everything is expensive. Food is expensive, electricity and gas are expensive, rent and mortgages are expensive, transportation is expensive. But parents in the UK with children under the age of three are grappling with another rapidly rising cost: childcare. A report by the Guardian has found that childcare fees are expected to rise by as much as 19% in the new year. Sarah, an office worker from Somerset, told the Guardian that the rise in fees make her “feel sick”, saying: “Our electric bill has just ticked over in to a higher rate, already fuel and food bills are soaring, then the nursery fee goes up. I have no spare cash at the end of the month.”

For years, those in the sector have been warning that early childcare provisions are on the brink of collapse. A recruitment crisis, chronic under-investment by the government and increasing costs have left the industry struggling to survive – inflation and the onrushing recession have only exacerbated the problem. The number of active providers in England has been steadily falling since 2015 and, like many other parts of the social infrastructure of this country, a lack of funding has meant that those left cannot pay staff much more than minimum wage (which the government has increased, while simultaneously making no increase to childcare subsidies). To make up the shortfall, many providers have raised their fees, making life more difficult for many families.

I spoke to Guardian senior news reporter Alexandra Topping about the crumbling childcare sector and the long-term repercussions of not funding it properly. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Cumbria coalmine | Michael Gove has approved the UK’s first new coalmine in three decades at Whitehaven in Cumbria. The mine will create about 500 new jobs in the region and produce 2.8m tonnes of coking coal a year. It will also produce an estimated 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year.

  2. Germany | Twenty-five people including a 71-year-old aristocrat, a retired military commander and a former far-right MP have been detained in Germany on suspicion of planning a terrorist plot to overthrow the state. Prosecutors said the accused followed the conspiracy theories of QAnon and the Reichsbürger (“empire citizens”) movement.

  3. Michelle Mone | The government had a responsibility to apply “basic standards” of procurement checks on PPE during the Covid pandemic, the auditor general will say, after scandals over supply, including those involving the peer Michelle Mone.

  4. Energy bills | A family of four were told they owed almost £1m to EDF for a year’s electricity and had £80,000 taken by direct debit, despite telling the company it was clearly incorrect. The payment put Richard Baron and his family more than £75,000 over their overdraft limit.

  5. Politics | The Conservatives have removed the whip from Julian Knight, the MP for Solihull in the Midlands, after a complaint was made to the Metropolitan police. No details of the complaint or what it relates to have been disclosed.

In depth: How did things get so bad?

View image in fullscreenOne of the March of the Mummies protests in October, to advocate for more childcare support. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The most recent figures show that to place a child under the age of two in nursery full-time – 50 hours a week – costs on average more than £14,000 a year in the UK (in London, it is £19,000 a year). In England full-time nursery costs almost two-thirds of a parent’s weekly take-home pay.

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For many, these costs are as much, or more, than their rent or mortgage. Paying so much for something as essential as childcare has caused widespread anger among parents – in October, thousands across the country marched to urge the government to reform the childcare sector and parental leave. How did things get so bad?

A crisis years in the making

While the government may point to the exceptionally difficult economic situation the country, and the world, is in to explain the crisis, the problem is far more entrenched.

“Childcare in this country has never been properly funded,” Alexandra explains. And the help the government does give is often inadequate. In 2017, the government introduced 30 hours of free childcare a week for three- to four-year-olds during school term time for parents who work full-time. “It was welcomed by parents,” says Alexandra. “It makes a massive difference and it feels as if you’re getting a huge pay raise when your kid hits three.” But the picture is more complicated: approximately 95% of nurseries say that the government’s funding of these “free” hours do not cover their costs, according to the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA).

Over the last decade, the gap between what the subsidy provides and what the care costs to give has been growing wider. “The government has told providers that they can’t charge top-up fees to cover this gap but what nurseries may do is charge £10 a day for ‘extras’ like nappies and snacks,” Alexandra says. As a result of this squeeze, 4,000 early-years providers have closed in the last two years.

Additionally, the removal of ring-fencing for early-years childcare in councils has meant that many local authorities have been under-spending or reallocating funding intended to deliver childcare. A report by the NDNA said that at least £55m of early-years funding had not been spent on its intended area.

Comparatively expensive

In Germany, children have a legal right to childcare, and prices range from €70 to €150 per child a month (and an increase in child benefits is due to kick in the new year). France, meanwhile, offers state-funded creches for children from two-and-a-half months old and Norway offers kindergarten to children between one and five. Most of these countries can provide high-quality childcare because of heavy state investment.

“One of the rallying cries of the childcare sector is that you have to see investment in childcare the same way that you see investment in bridges or in the railway,” Alexandra says. “It not only enables parents to go back to work, it’s also incredibly important for the population of the future: the first 1,000 days of a child’s life is so important for brain development.”

Impacts

The spiralling cost of childcare has meant that many people cannot afford to work. Women comprise 84% of the 1.75 million people who have given up work to care for their family, and this number is rising. Alexandra has spoken to some people who have stopped working when faced with mounting bills: “When they did the sums, it didn’t make sense to pay for childcare because it basically wiped out their salary.” And this does not take into account the kind of support a family with a disabled child needs, where provision is even more scarce and expensive.

Taking a career break has a myriad of side effects though. “That person who steps back from the workforce does not pay tax, so it’s bad for the economy, they don’t put money into their pension, so it’s bad for their financial security – and it’s terrible for their career progression,” Alexandra says. Unsurprisingly, this has disproportionately negative impacts on women’s career and wage outcomes.

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What could be done

The arguments for affordable and decent childcare are obvious. A survey by the Centre for Progressive Policy (pdf) found that if women were able to access affordable childcare, and therefore worked the hours they wanted, their collective earnings would increase between £7.6bn and £10.9bn a year.

It also improves social mobility and a child’s emotional and social development. But there does not seem to be the political appetite for such solutions, says Alexandra. “Both parties want to discuss childcare, as it is an important issue for many voters, but they’re just tinkering around the edges – there’s no real desire to get to grips with the scale of the problem.”

Tinkering isn’t enough: campaigners, childcare workers and parents are all calling for a radical overhaul and significant investment so that the system does not collapse altogether. If it does, the knock-on consequences for the economy could be huge.

What else we’ve been reading

View image in fullscreen Composite: Guardian/Shutterstock/Getty

  • Sociologist Linsey McGoey draws two interesting lessons from the Michelle Mone affair (pictured above): the value of “strategic ignorance” for politicians, and how difficult that makes it to draw the right lessons from the PPE supply crisis. “By turning a blind eye to relentless profiteering … the problem of corporate predation is minimised,” she writes. Archie

  • Catherine Donnelly writes vividly about her grandmother who, for years, told her many stories of her life in the working-class town of Peterborough, Ontario. Once she died, Donnelly was confronted with a transformed understanding of how history is written and remembered by those without much power. Nimo

    Credit USA

  • Joanne Harris warns that a career writing books has become impossible for all but a narrow tranche of the most fortunate writers, with the gender pay gap growing to a vast 41% and Black and mixed-heritage authors earning 51% less than white ones. The median income is dismal: £7,000 a year. Archie

  • Felicity Cloake has come through for veggies (or those who don’t enjoy eating copious amounts of meat) with this nut roast recipe. I will definitely try it out this weekend. Nimo

  • I did not expect to read William Shatner on how much he loved going to space and why he cares about the Cop15 summit in the Guardian yesterday, but here he is, explaining how his trip made him realise the importance of preserving Earth’s biodiversity. Archie

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Sport

Football | Vivianne Miedema’s first-half volley made the difference in a tight game, as Arsenal Women triumphed against Juventus Women 1-0. The victory brings them within three points of qualifying for the Women’s Champion’s League knockout stages.

The front pages

View image in fullscreen Photograph: Guardian

The Guardian leads with “Gove ignores climate warnings to approve first coalmine in 30 years”, as the levelling up secretary gives the go-ahead to the project that will produce an estimated 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year.

The Mail says “It’s beginning to look a lot like… an Xmas general strike,” while the Telegraph reports on “Army fury as soldiers ordered to give up Christmas over strikes”. The Times leads with, “Christmas flights hit by airport walkouts”.

The Financial Times says “Xi’s zero-Covid controls loosened as evidence mounts of damage to trade”.

The i splashes with “Hancock forced out after local Tories revolt against their absentee MP”. The Mirror focuses in on the former health secretaries reality TV career with, “Hancock: get me out of here”.

The Sun looks ahead to England’s quarter-finals World Cup match, tracking down the second cousin of France’s star player with the headline: “Kylian Mbappe lives in Leicester.. and yes, he does support 3 lions”.

Today in Focus

View image in fullscreen Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

Why are so many workers going on strike in Britain?

From hospitals to buses to the postal service, the impact of wide-ranging industrial action is already being felt, but how much worse could things get? Nosheen Iqbal speaks to striking workers who explain why they feel so passionately, while Heather Stewart explains how rising inflation is complicating negotiations between employers and staff.

Cartoon of the day | Steve Bell

View image in fullscreen Illustration: Steve Bell/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

View image in fullscreenMatthew Conridge, the owner of Play Leisure. Photograph: Joao Diniz Sanches/The Guardian

When the pandemic forced Matthew Conridge to close up the video game bar he was running in Devon, he decided to pivot to a related field: restoring old arcade machines. After starting small, his company, Play Leisure, now has 200-odd arcade machines crammed into a space about the size of a tennis court, and a constant demand from collectors nostalgic for the coin-ops of their youth. “We just sold an Addams Family pinball machine for £10,000 – that would have been chucked in a skip 15 years ago,” Matt says. “People didn’t expect anyone would want them.” And while he works painstakingly to get derelict machines back in action, he doesn’t seek cosmetic perfection. “When we went into arcades as children, the machines would have cigarette burns – that’s how you remember them. There’s a certain charm to that.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

  • Quick crossword

  • Cryptic crossword

In yesterday’s email, the first paragraph said that Michelle Mone’s husband was John Barrowman. It is, of course, Douglas Barrowman – as it went on to say later in the piece. We apologise for the error.

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