Nick Clegg’s opposition to the reform of adult-child ratio limits demonstrates the difficulties of reaching agreement on the contentious area of childcare and pre-school education. Once largely left to families and a small market sector, childcare is increasingly a political issue.
The UK Government is now spending more as a percentage of GDP on childcare than every other European country except Denmark. Yet the direct costs to parents rise inexorably. Policy is driven by, at least, three very different objectives. Unfortunately these objectives can conflict, and as a result we have landed ourselves with an expensively ineffective mess and limited parental choice.
First, there is pressure to keep costs down as middle-income working parents can find themselves spending a third or more of after-tax earnings on childcare. Second, many would argue that improvements in the quality of childcare and pre-school education can better prepare childrenfor Big School – and perhaps offset the disadvantage faced by youngsters whose home life lacks structure and support from a stable family. Third, providing affordable pre-school care to welfare claimants, in particular single parents, may help get them back into work and reduce the benefits bill.