But the provision of universal, affordable childcare could enable parents to return to work, reducing unemployment and economic inactivity.
Among many of the families living in poverty in Scotland at least one of the parents is working, but if both parents could earn a wage without being heavily penalised by the costs of childcare, it would substantially increase family incomes and reduce child poverty. This is particularly important for single parents who are disproportionately penalised by the high cost of childcare.
High-quality early years education provides a good foundation for the child’s future learning.
In the long-term, this improves the skill base of the workforce and boosts economic productivity. It also helps to reduce inequality and shape socially well-adjusted individuals. Focusing on children’s well-being and education is a long-term investment which benefits us all.
Access to affordable childcare also furthers gender equality and reduces the “motherhood penalty” – the detachment of mothers from the workforce due to long periods of unpaid childcare, followed by the crowding of women into low paid part-time jobs when they return to work. This can hamper women’s earnings and career progression.
Universal childcare would allow women to return to work. When combined with more generous leave policies and more flexibility, parents could meet childcare demands and continue to work.
There’s a lot to learn from the Danish approach to childcare. In Denmark all children are entitled to a childcare place (from 8am-6pm, including school holidays) from the age of one until they start school. A mixture of centre-based care and child-minders is in place, run by the public, private and voluntary sectors. There is also the option for what’s called “private day care”, whereby parents are paid a token wage to look after their own child for one year beyond maternity leave.
The costs to Danish parents are set according to family income and capped at a low level (a maximum of 25 per cent of the price of childcare). Parents pay the equivalent of 7-10 per cent of their annual income and it’s completely free for those on low incomes. In comparison, recent OECD research indicates that UK parents currently pay on average 33 per cent of their net income on childcare and this disproportionately affects families on low incomes. Denmark does not have child tax credits, preferring instead to fund services rather than cash transfer.
Funding universal services is more suitable for ensuring that high-quality childcare is available for everyone, regardless of their location, socio-economic background or specialised needs. In Denmark, high quality childcare is considered to be a central plank of child development, especially in areas such as language, literacy and behaviour. Consequently, the childcare workforce is well trained and well paid. Sixty per cent of childcare staff hold pedagogical university level training, reflecting the value of childcare workers’ contribution to society.
In March 2013 Alex Salmond announced that he wanted a “transformational shift” in childcare provision so that it was more comparable to European levels of provision. However, exactly what policies would be put in place remains vague. According to his previous pledge in 2012, it would include 600 hours of free childcare for all three and four-year-olds. This would fall far short of the levels of childcare provided in other European countries. Clearly, a much more comprehensive reform in childcare provision is needed if Scotland wants to truly to become a fairer and dynamic society. Central to this reform should be universal childcare for all children from ages one to four and the development of a more long-term approach towards childcare and early year’s education. It’s high time the motherhood penalty was consigned to the history books.
• Louise Settle recently finished a PhD in history at the University of Edinburgh. She has also completed a Third Sector Internships Scotland placement with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations