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No more baby steps: A strategy for revolutionising childcare

Childcare has become an increasingly salient public policy issue across developed economies in recent decades. As the number of women entering employment has risen, the need to enable parents to balance their work and family lives has led to increased demands for affordable childcare provision. Efforts to meet these demands are most advanced in the Scandinavian countries, where sustained investment over many years has produced high-quality, universal pre-school childcare systems that support the highest female employment rates in the world. Yet the extension of childcare provision can be observed in most mature economies: many countries in Europe and Asia that are traditionally socially conservative have also taken a ‘Nordic turn’ in recent years, as they seek to improve parental employment rates and deal with the care needs that emerge in ageing societies.

A further widely shared objective of public policy in advanced economies is the promotion of greater equality in early childhood development. Extensive evidence points to the importance of high-quality early learning to social and educational outcomes later in childhood. Policymakers have sought to invest in early-years education and care in order to reduce inequalities in school-readiness, and to tackle the high social and economic costs of entrenched disadvantage that start at the very beginning of children’s lives. There is evidence that when early-years education is provided by highly trained staff, it not only enables families to better balance work and caring responsibilities, but also delivers greater equality in children’s life chances. The impact that both parental employment and care quality have on child poverty is considerable: a child that grows up in a household with two earners, and receives high-quality early learning and care, is less likely to live in poverty.

Another objective of any early-years and childcar e policy should be gender equality. The provision of affordable childcare helps to ensure that childcare responsibilities do not prevent women from continuing to work, and that mothers and fathers can share the obligations and rewards of parenting more equally. In doing so, it helps to reduce gender inequalities in terms of both ear nings and the division of family care responsibilities. However, the evidence also suggests that gender equality is best promoted when affordable childcare is coupled with parental leave and flexible work entitlements that encourage and enable fathers as well as mothers to take on caring responsibilities, particularly in the first year of a child’s life. It is therefore important to integrate policies for extending affordable childcare provision with those that structure options for maternity, paternity and parental leave.

In this report we set out plans for how the UK can move towards a universal, high-quality and affordable system of childcare and early-years provision. Such a system – combined with reforms to parental leave and rights to flexible employment – can enable us to meet three core objectives of public policy for the early-years:

• higher employment rates for parents, particularly mothers
• reductions in early childhood inequalities
• greater gender equality.