In late 2021, working as an independent researcher, I spent some time in food banks talking to people about the circumstances that had led them there and the impact on their mental health. I distinctly remember a conversation with one parent, Philippa (not her real name), who was on universal credit and told me that the biggest single factor standing in the way of her getting into work was that she would have to pay for the first month of childcare upfront then claim the costs back later. She simply didn’t have the money to do this.
Last week, changes were introduced to universal credit meaning parents will be eligible for more support with the cost of childcare and, crucially, they will be able to seek this support up front rather than having to claim it back in arrears. These are welcome developments and the potential positive impact for Phillipa and thousands of parents in her position should not be underestimated.
However, as with the broader set of changes to funding for childcare announced in the Spring Budget, these reforms do little to address some of the critical underlying problems with the current system. Whether it’s about the experience of parents accessing provision, the quality of care and support children receive, pay and progression opportunities staff, or the sustainability and social commitment of providers, our system of childcare and early years education is falling short and at risk of falling apart.
While a change of policy that could help people like Philippa move into work is a good thing, we have to ask: why was she ever left in such a position? Tracing this question back can help us to understand the weaknesses of the current system and the values, assumptions and priorities that underlie them.
Philippa is only able to access support with the cost of childcare once she moves into work because the assumption baked into the system is that this support needs to be dangled as an incentive rather than provided as a foundation. Having unconditional access to childcare could allow Philippa to focus on finding a job, or addressing other issues that are standing in the way of her working.
Alongside support from universal credit, as Philippa moves into work and potentially increases her hours, she will become eligible for a complex web of ‘free hours’ and ‘tax-free childcare’. Given the knowledge and time required to navigate these systems and processes, it’s hardly surprising that many people end up missing out on support they are eligible for.