Childcare is no panacea when it comes to getting women into work

Policy on childcare continues to promote a conservative view of women’s roles in the home and labour market. It's time for a new approach.

Policy on childcare continues to promote a conservative view of women’s roles in the home and labour market. It’s time for a new approach

Over the last 25 years Britain has moved from being one of the lowest spenders in the OECD on pre-school education to one of the highest. In England spending has risen to £2bn per year.

Meanwhile all parties continue to emphasise their commitment to increasing investment in childcare.

Osborne continued this trend in the autumn statement, committing to an extra £2m being invested in the childcare business grant scheme. In the childcare bidding war Labour countered that the coalition had not gone far enough and a Labour chancellor would have pledged 25 hours of free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds.

Given Labour’s support is high among the supposed beneficiaries of such a policy – young women and those of prime-childbearing age – it is unsurprising that it wants to retain these voters’ loyalty. But do the arguments in favour of supporting childcare – that they increase women’s participation in the labour market, boost growth, and narrowing inequality – have any basis?

Newly published research has found that the expansion in free universal childcare places for three and four-year-olds in England, which began in 1998, has had only a slight impact on the employment rate of mothers. It is estimated that the expansion of free childcare places has led to a rise in the employment rate for mothers whose youngest child is aged three of only 3 per cent.

This works out at just 12,000 mothers. Although the addition of free childcare hours undoubtedly lessens the financial burden on households, the research also concludes that in the last decade five out of six families that have gained a free place would ultimately have paid for childcare anyway.

In other words, the progressive benefits of widening access to free childcare places appear to have been overstated.

A separate study has also found that the current preoccupation of promoting childcare as progressive tool to increase workforce participation is misguided.

There is a mismatch between the political consensus surrounding formal childcare structures of nurseries and pre-school settings and the flexibility that is needed to support the modern working patterns of most women. Formal childcare settings are of most use to both the very poorest who can utilise full-day schemes and those highly educated women with professional jobs and regular hours.

Childcare settings that work to strict opening hours do not, however, meet the needs of working women who need greater flexibility, such as those working shifts, on zero-hours contracts and in temporary or part-time work.

Women are, in short, being failed by the sustained focus on paid-for childcare as the primary means to facilitate their entry or re-entry into the labour market. Perhaps counter-intuitively the majority of low-and middle-income families have seen no real benefits in the last decade from increases in paid-for childcare and the policy is not enabling women to return to work.

Clearly an alternative approach is needed. In a low-growth environment, progressive political parties must seek to invest in the human capital that women build up through their employment pre-childbirth and recognise that flexibility in both employment and childcare is key. There is often an implicit assumption that women will be taking up the childcare burden within a two-parent household, and that policies should therefore be geared to facilitate women’s entry or return to the labour market.

However this legitimises the very inequality these policies should counter. The assumption imposes a conservative starting point, insisting that a women’s role is as the primary care-giver. A progressive predistributive approach would seek to understand how this traditional role can be challenged through public policy.

This should build on shared parental leave. In the UK it is currently left entirely up to the couple to decide how the leave is divided – which more often than not still results in women taking the vast majority of the leave.

One way to achieve parity could be to shorten the UK’s comparatively generous statutory maternity leave and to build on the largely symbolic two-week paternity leave. For example, Norway has a three month minimum paid paternity leave quota that can only be used by the father.

Such a settlement would significantly reduce the ‘motherhood pay penalty’ – the fall in earnings that is linked to the break of economic inactivity following childbirth – as women would be economically inactive for a shorter period. It would become the norm that both new parents are absent from the workplace immediately after the birth, leading to attitudinal change and practical changes in care provision in the home.

The reluctance of SMEs in particular to hire women of childbearing age would inevitably be eroded with this new norm being created. This would increase participation but would also allow women to enter more secure and senior forms of employment due to the root of inequality being tackled, rather than just the symptom.

This is just one aspect of how a predistributive approach could enable greater gender equality and drive economic growth. Placing a greater emphasis on investments that encourage would-be mothers not to sever their links with the employment market, back-to-work schemes, workplace-based childcare, and targeted tax credits could all also work towards the same aim: greater gender equality, rising financial security for families and economic growth.

Emma Kinloch is events and stakeholder manager at Policy Network

This article is based on a series of articles commissioned by Policy Network discussing equalising women’s pay and opportunity

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