Press release

Parents in the dark about government’s flagship childcare policy

A Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission survey reveals that nearly half of all new mums don’t know what support is available.

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A new survey conducted by Qa Research on behalf of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has questioned 1,000 parents who reported as the main carer of 0- to 3-year-olds in England. The vast majority of respondents were mothers.

The survey reveals that nearly 50% of first-time mums either don’t know that the government offers financial help with childcare, or know there is help, but don’t know how to get it or how much it would save them. It also revealed that 57% of working-class parents and 40% of middle-class parents would have liked to work more hours, but their perception of the cost of childcare was a deterrent.

Other findings included large differences by social group in the proportion of parents attending antenatal classes prior to the birth of their first child. 27% of all parents did not attend any antenatal classes, but this rises to 37% for working-class parents and 44% for lone parents. Working-class parents are also considerably more likely to experience isolation in the first year of their child’s life. 16% of working-class parents said that they had no contact at all with parents with children of a similar age to their own, compared to 9% of middle-class parents.

By 2020 the government will be ploughing a generous £6 billion into childcare support - which for the poorest working parents could equate to 85% or more of total costs. There are high take-up rates of free childcare for 3- and 4-year-olds but too many parents of younger children are finding it too difficult to work out what help they are entitled to, and the extent to which that help will reduce the high headline costs of local childcare provision.

A recent survey from the Family and Childcare Trust cited the cost of a full-time nursery place for a baby or toddler under age 2 at over £300 a week in London and over £210 a week in the rest of England.

The commission has shown that, from 2017, there will be 6 different funding mechanisms by which parents can receive help with childcare. All 6 have different objectives, different eligibility criterion, and different ways of getting to parents; including through the tax system, the benefits system, and via funding that goes direct from government to nurseries and childminders. These include:

  • the childcare element of Working Tax Credit which will become part of Universal Credit
  • childcare vouchers (which will close to new entrants from 2017)
  • a new “Tax Free” childcare system which will launch in 2017
  • 15 hours of free childcare for all 3- and 4-year-olds
  • 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged 2-year-olds
  • an additional 15 hours of free childcare for 3- and 4-year-olds with working parents which will be tested in some local authorities from autumn 2016 and be available to all eligible parents the following year

Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission said:

£6 billion of public investment in childcare should be a poverty-busting, work-enhancing policy. But it is not delivering the maximum bang for the buck.

Hard-pressed parents, at one of the most stressful times of their life, are struggling to make sense of the childcare funding maze. Too many simply cannot work out what help is available.

The way childcare is being funded is a confusion piled on a muddle piled on a mess. Without urgent simplification there is a real risk that the government’s noble aims to close the gender pay gap and boost maternal employment will simply not be realised.

The detailed findings of the survey included that just 14% of new parents were very clear about what childcare funding they were entitled to and how to get it. More parents (18%) said that they had no idea at all about what support was on offer (either from government, their employer or local authorities). A further 29% of all parents said that although they knew there was some help available, they had no idea what they were eligible for or how to get it.

In total, 47% of all parents had either no or very little understanding of what support there was available to help them with the costs of childcare in the early stages of parenthood. This figure is 53% when just looking at working-class parents, those who most wanted to return to work or work more hours.

The third annual report of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, published in December 2015, made 2 recommendations for government to address the fragmented childcare offer:

  • First, that in the short term, government must more effectively communicate the monetary value of the support for childcare available to parents, so that they can see the gap between the costs of childcare at their preferred provider and their pay packet. The commission suggested that one option could be for government to issue a statement directly to all parents entitled to Universal Credit and Child Benefit (including new parents), setting out the childcare support that they are likely to be entitled to, tailored according to family circumstance.

  • Second, that in the long term, government should streamline the way that it funds childcare, so that there are fewer programmes, clear and consistent eligibility rules, and better value for money. This would significantly improve parents’ ability to understand and utilise the funding.

The survey adds to analysis by the thinktank IPPR looking at the childcare system and maternal employment. Their analysis showed that getting 10% of currently workless mothers into work and 10% of mothers who currently work part-time into full-time work would together have a £1.5 billion per year positive fiscal impact, resulting from higher tax revenue and lower benefits and tax credits.

Notes to editors

1) The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (the commission) is an advisory non-departmental public body established by the Child Poverty Act 2010 as amended by the Welfare Reform Act 2012. The commission became fully operational in January 2013.

2) The role of the commission is to:

  • monitor the government’s progress in improving social mobility and reducing child poverty in the United Kingdom
  • monitor the implementation of the UK, Scottish and Welsh child poverty strategies
  • provide independent published advice to Ministers at their request, including about the measurement of socio-economic disadvantage, social mobility and child poverty
  • challenge non-government institutions, such as higher education, business and others, to improve their performance on social mobility

3) The Commission’s Board is made up of 7 commissioners:

  • Alan Milburn (chair)
  • Baroness Gillian Shephard (deputy chair)
  • Paul Gregg, Professor of Economic and Social Policy, University of Bath
  • Douglas Hamilton, Director of the RS Macdonald Charitable Trust
  • David Johnston, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation
  • Catriona Williams, Chief Executive of Children in Wales

4) For more information contact Kathryn Laing or Paul Johnston, Secretariat Directors, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on 02073408397 or secretariat.director@SMCPcommission.gsi.gov.uk.

5) Read the research report on parents’ experiences of services in the early years

Published 4 March 2016