- The British state now expects a one-year-old to go to nursery only six hours less than the average adult spends in full-time work. Tweet This
- Every year, the majority of UK mothers tell policymakers they don’t want more free child care so they can work longer hours. This year is no different. Tweet This
- Government child care policy is entirely focused on putting young children into institutions, despite this not being the preference of most mothers. Tweet This
The UK government is fast moving towards the ‘nationalization’ of family life according to one British MP. American readers might not be familiar with Miriam Cates, but she could be the future of the Conservative Party in Britain.
A strong socially conservative voice, she is almost alone in her battle to stand up for families, from online pornographers to the rights of parents at school, Miriam Cates has led the fight back. She is also one of the few politicians in Westminster willing to criticize recent plans to roll out long hours of institutionalized child care to babies as young as nine months.
Britain is fast moving towards universal child care. In two years’ time, working parents with children aged nine months and upwards will be entitled to 30 hours of free child care per week right up to their child starting school at age four. To fund this, the government has doubled spending on child care and will pay for anyone to look after your child as long as it is not you. The British state now expects a one-year-old to go to nursery only six hours less than the average adult spends in full-time work.
Take up rates for ‘free’ hours are relatively high between 74 and 94%, depending on the age of the child. The tax free child care discount has a less impressive take up rate barely more than a third, leading to a big underspend in this child care tax break.
Universal child care isn’t new; readers from North America will be familiar with grand policy experiments in places like Quebec, which was a disaster for children. In the UK, every mainstream political party is signed up to extending ‘free’ child care to babies for long periods of time. In many London nurseries, it isn’t unusual to find babies being dropped off at 7 a.m., only to be collected late into the evening. No one has suggested boarding schools for toddlers, but it is only a matter of time. Estimates suggest that children under the age of two spend, on average, just under 25 hours a week in a formal child care setting in the UK, rising to about 27 hours a week for three- to four-year-olds.
The evidence for putting very young children into long hours in child care institutions is at best mixed. Later this year, Erica Komisar will visit the UK to meet with politicians to explain the dangers of long hours of child care and separating infants from mothers. Her message is based on decades of clinical experience and set out in her book, Being There: why prioritising motherhood in the first three years matters.
Universal child care is not a public policy built on evidence; it is a deeply entrenched ideological approach that women don’t want. Every year, the UK education department conducts a huge survey of parents and their attitudes towards child care. And every year, the majority of UK mothers tell policymakers they don’t want more free child care so they can work longer hours. This year is no different.
There are an estimated 2.8 million working mothers with children aged 0-15 who would prefer to work fewer hours to spend more time with their children, equivalent to 60% of all working mothers with children aged 0-15. Almost a third (32%) say they want to give up work entirely to raise their children.
The data for mothers with younger children is even more striking. Almost one in four (37%) mothers with children aged four and under (the age at which children start school in the UK) would give up work completely to look after their children if they could afford it, equivalent to 710,000 women.
Meanwhile, only about half of non-working mothers (54%) with children four and under would look for work if they could arrange “good quality child care which was convenient, reliable and affordable,” equivalent to about 411,000 women.
Two-thirds (67%) of working mothers with children aged four and under would like to work fewer hours if they could afford it in order to look after their children, equivalent to 1.28 million women. Government child care policy is entirely focused on putting young children into institutions, despite this not being the preference of most mothers, especially those with young children.
In response, the British government has increased spending on child care by more than £4 billion a year (or $4.9 billion), with the expectation that it will lead to 111,000 more people in the workplace, an extraordinary subsidy of £36,000 per job (or $44,900). To put this into some sort of context for American readers, while a billion here or there might not sound huge, the increase represents 0.18% of GDP by 2027/28. In American terms, that would be the equivalent of spending an extra $45 billion dollars on child care centers.
Anyone who has been paying attention to British politics will realize the British Conservative Party is in deep electoral trouble. It looks very likely that the party will face many years in opposition where it will be forced to look again at its policy prospectus.
There are some early signs that thinking on child care, particularly on the right, might be starting to swing towards choice. The Centre for Social Justice, a think tank with strong links to the Conservative Party, has recently put forward plans for a “family credit” where parents are given a budget for child care to be spent as they choose. They point to their own recent polling evidence showing almost eight in 10 (78%) parents with children under five want to spend more time with their children, but feel they cannot afford to do so. An even higher number, 81%, said they felt it was more important to help parents to stay at home for longer with a new baby rather than getting back to work as quickly as possible. The author of this report is now working for another right wing think tank putting together a plan for the revival of the Conservative Party, where the idea of parental choice is likely to feature strongly.
My own organization, Civitas, a robustly independent policy institute, has proposed a family support payment, rolling public spending on child care into a single monthly payment to mothers worth up to £5,500 a year ($6,800). This was calculated before recent increases in state spending on child care. The benefit would be dependent on attending parenting classes and relationship support for couples. Both proposals offer parents choice rather than subsidies for institutional child care.
The evidence is clear that UK moms want to spend a lot less time in the office and more time raising their children, despite a tax and benefits system pushing them in the opposite direction. For now, it looks likely that things will get worse before they get better for Britain’s working mothers.
Frank Young is research and communications director at Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society. He is author of Why Can’t Mums Choose?
Editor's Note: This essay has been updated with a correction.