Election 2019: Political Promises or Pipe Dreams for the Childcare Sector

As the General Election draws closer, political parties have outlined their policies for the Early Years Sector. Political promises from the three major parties have centered on offering more hours of free childcare and increased childcare funding. The result: childcare proposals have become a numbers race.

Yoopies UK, an online platform for childcare, analyses the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat childcare manifestos. In conjunction with exclusive research, it exposes how a battle for the biggest figures ignores the need for the simplification of the existing schemes.

What’s on offer?

The Conservative party manifesto underscores that for “too many parents, the costs of childcare are a heavy burden” and pledge to give parents “freedom, support and choice to look after their children in the way that works best for them.” including:
● A £1bn fund to create more high quality, affordable childcare, before and after-school and during the school holidays for “wraparound childcare”

The Labour party manifesto promises “high-quality Early Years Education for every child to make things simpler and more sustainable for both parents and providers.” Key points
● Fund 30 hours of free childcare for all two-, three- and four-year-olds and access to additional hours at subsidised rates “staggered with incomes”
● Transition to a “qualified, graduate-led workforce” by providing free training to childcare providers

Estimated total cost: £2.6bn

Liberal Democrats:
The Liberal Democrat Manifesto outlines that “free childcare will allow parents to decide on a
balance of work and childcare that suits them, help close gaps in education and gender gaps
in pay”. Key points:
● 35 hours a week of free childcare for 48 weeks a year for all two-, three- and four- year-olds in England
● 35 hours a week of free childcare from the age of nine months to two years for working families
● Increase the funding for free hours to cover the cost of nursery provision
● Require all Early Years settings to have a training programme for staff, with the majority of staff working towards an Early Years Qualification.
Estimated total cost: £13bn

Do bigger figures equate a better Early Years Sector?

Greater funding and free childcare hours should encourage positive change, this however must be accompanied by a better understanding of the childcare industry by politicians. Yoopies’ study recently showed the importance of these childcare benefits schemes, but that the current allowances still aren’t sufficient enough to support full-time working parents. For childcare providers, the Early Years Sector is currently grossly underfunded, forcing many childcare businesses to consistently raise their fees with 23% of childminders in 2019 already increasing their fees for at least one age group in the last year.

However, whilst politicians continue to “one-up” their rivals with promises to parents for more affordable childcare, we mustn’t overlook that it is the Early Years Industry that bears the brunt of their proposals. Francesca Chong, manager of Yoopies UK argues: “Racing to offer the most funding or hours does not resolve the structural issues at the core of the Early Years Industry that must firstly be addressed.”

Throughout all industries from transport to renting, integrated open marketplaces allow matching of supply and demand and automated payment which has revolutionised usage. However, the childcare sector has been left behind. Parents have a fragmented experience with multiple entry points and complex paperwork. Childcare providers also have a lot of administration to deal with, and difficulties and delays with retrieving payments with inflexible and complicated payment schedules. Local Authorities are not exempt from difficulties either, and struggle to regulate the delivery of the funded hours.

Digitalisation is the key to repair the current fragmented system HMRC, the DfE and Local Authorities across England need to integrate online booking and payment systems directly into the childcare benefit schemes, allowing parents to instantly use their allowances as discounts on their childcare payments. For childminders, this integration could mean less paperwork, less need to go back and forth between different platforms to manage funding claims and therefore more time to focus on delivering good quality childcare. Yoopies estimates that the digitalisation of these processes could double the uptake of childcare benefits (as shown by a Yoopies study which revealed that currently 44% of parents find the current system too complicated to use and 83% would use it if it was less fragmented).

The possibility for such innovation projects to go ahead relies heavily on the outcome of next week’s election. Increasing free childcare allowances for families and promising increased funding, while a positive step in the right direction, does not in itself make access and understanding of benefit entitlements an easier process. Rather than solely participating in a numbers race, politicians should use the election as an opportunity to better educate, inform, improve and streamline the benefits schemes that are currently in place.