Childcare in England failing and falling behind much of world, charity says

<span>The charity recommends providing funding to nurseries so they can operate in unprofitable areas, and support inclusion for all children.</span><span>Photograph: PA/Alamy</span>
The charity recommends providing funding to nurseries so they can operate in unprofitable areas, and support inclusion for all children.Photograph: PA/Alamy

England’s childcare system is failing and falling behind those of much of the rest of the world, a UK charity for gender equality and women’s rights has said.

The Fawcett Society said childcare in England was failing on several fronts: affordability, quality and levels of public spending.

The charity looked at early childhood education and care (ECEC) provision in Australia, Canada, Estonia, France, and Ireland – all countries that have recently completed or are undergoing government-led transformation in the sector – and found England’s childcare fell short in ambition and delivery.

The findings echo numerous warnings on the state of childcare in England, with surveys finding that a third of parents with young children say they are struggling to afford childcare, nurseries warning that government plans for free childcare are undeliverable, and about a quarter of a million mothers with young children leaving their jobs because of difficulties with balancing work and childcare.

The most recent change to England’s childcare system, which came into force this month, was an expansion of free hours. The Fawcett Society said that while this was welcome for some families, the narrow focus of the expansion would not help those who are disadvantaged and would not address the wider issues with the system.

The charity argues in its report that the government should offer free “universal” hours of ECEC provision for all children from the end of parental leave until school age.

Jemima Olchawski, the Fawcett Society’s chief executive, said: “Our childcare is some of the most expensive in the world and it isn’t working. Research shows that 85% of mothers struggle to find childcare that fits around their work and one in 10 have quit jobs due to childcare pressures.

“For too long we’ve seen the cracks in our dysfunctional childcare system papered over. We’ve got a patchwork of provision that doesn’t meet the needs of children, parents or the childcare sector. But a broken system isn’t inevitable, as the countries in our research clearly show. We need politicians from all parties to work together and make genuine commitments that last beyond this election – and indeed the next – to reform childcare.

“There are plenty of countries around the world who simply do childcare better and we should be learning from their ambition. As we approach a general election, all parties need to be aware that any credible vision for transforming childcare mustn’t simply offer bolt-ons to a crumbling system. We must be more ambitious, particularly when it has such an impact on both children’s life chances and women’s ability to work.”

The report outlines a plan for long-term reform in England that includes building on and expanding the existing “free hours” to make the offer open to all children, not just those of working parents, with extra subsidies for the poorest to enable them to afford to supplement the universal offer, and fee freezes for everyone.

The report also recommends providing funding to nurseries so they can operate in unprofitable areas, and support inclusion for all children.

Alesha De-Freitas, the director of policy, research and advocacy at the Fawcett Society, said: “Affordability is clearly essential but we’ve got stuck on it. When you look at other countries, you find a richness to the conversations about what is genuinely best for children that is so different to the UK.”

The Fawcett Society report warns that “designing a system which is focused narrowly on [affordability] without strengthening and resourcing the system … may ultimately be counterproductive and unable to meet the demands it has set up”.

There is ample international evidence that higher-quality childcare has huge long-term economic and social benefits, it says.

“The early years of a child’s life are so important – the evidence for that is growing all the time,” De-Freitas added. “It really impacts on children’s long-term outcomes and access to education. We should be aiming for so much better than just having somewhere for parents to park their children while they’re at work.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This government is delivering the largest ever expansion of childcare in England’s history, set to save parents taking up the full 30 hours an average of £6,900 for the new entitlements.

“Working parents on universal credit are also eligible for support with childcare costs no matter how many hours they work, up to £1,015 per month for a single child and £1,739 for two children. England has some of the highest-quality early years provision in the world, with 96% of early years settings rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding as of August 2023 – up from 74% in 2012.”