Good quality childcare has the power to change lives. The Scottish Government’s pledge to transform it is an exciting opportunity. We should not let it pass by, by getting bogged down in arguments about the underlying political motivations.
Research shows low-cost quality childcare benefits women, children, family budgets, in-work rates and economic growth. It’s one of the few policies that contributes to both growing the economy and redistributing that growth more fairly. It is undeniably a good thing.
We even have authoritative research showing the positive contribution it makes to improved educational outcomes, higher in-work levels for women, improved health and wellbeing, stronger skills, higher confidence in later life and even lower crime. It genuinely transforms lives.
Early-years education was an achievement of early-years devolution. The then-Labour Liberal coalition introduced it universally for three and four-year-olds, from which nine in ten children benefited. We saw large-scale expansion of wrap-around care, breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and community schools. This was, at the time, big first steps. The problem is, apart from a small expansion in hours and some effort to align private and public sector hours and attempts to make it more flexible for families, there have only been a few baby steps since.
What we now offer complicates as much as it supports family life. There are the free 15 hours of early-years education for three and four-year-olds per week; the childcare elements of Working Tax Credit; employer voucher schemes and various small schemes through Job Centre Plus and anti-poverty initiatives which fund nurseries, crèches and breakfast clubs. Local authorities also subsidise childcare social enterprises and a range of sports and social clubs in schools. It’s a maze for parents to navigate.
And childcare in Scotland is not cheap, with fees rising 4.8 per cent last year. The fees for part-time care for two children are now 22 per cent higher than the average mortgage bill. Charges vary considerably across Scotland: in some areas the difference is as much as £3,000.
Twenty-five hours in a nursery in Scotland now costs on average of more than £100 a week and an after-school club almost £50 a week. You only need a couple of children to ensure there is little financial advantage to working. If you ever wondered where those high childcare fees go, they do not end up in the pockets of those who do the frontline caring of our children.
The childcare workforce, particularly in the private sector, is not well paid. One of the key reasons for UNISON’s support for public sector childcare is to ensure that we can build on improvements we have made to pay in that sector. One thing is for sure; we will not transform Scotland by simply expanding the low-paid private sector.
Fees and pay are, of course, only part of the story. To really transform Scotland, we need to provide childcare of the highest quality. This will only be provided by qualified early-years staff. The skills required to deliver high quality childcare, as with much work traditionally done by women, are not rewarded in the market. They are not invested in like other industries.
But again, it is local authorities who employ the best-qualified and most experienced childcare workers and are best placed to expand their workforce while maintaining a high standard.
So let’s take the First Minister at face value and get started. We need to engage with parents and staff and start national strategic planning. We need to understand the level of demand and how many parents would work if childcare was available and affordable, and the mix of formal and informal family care parents want, and we need to end the false divide between childcare and education.
Transforming childcare will cost money, we can’t pretend otherwise, and without doing the preparatory work at this stage it is anyone’s guess as to how much. But we do know it will generate more tax by creating jobs and by supporting women to return to work after maternity leave. And we know there will be a return on our investment. We will also make savings if we invest in getting it right in the first place, as opposed to the high costs we currently pay to overcome the effects of poverty and inequality.
So we need get on with it, so we can all reap the benefit. If the outcome of our divisive constitutional debate results in the transformation of childcare then it may just have been all worthwhile.
• Dave Watson is the Head of Bargaining and Campaigns at UNISON Scotland www.unison-scotland.org.uk