Earlier last month, OxPolicy launched its newest policy report, titled “Affordable Childcare When You Need It? Childcare opening hours in the context of the Childcare Act 2016”. For this occasion, we hosted a launch event in which our research team presented the key findings of the report, which were then discussed by a panel of experts. Prominent members of the panel included Dr. Pierre Walthery, Research Fellow at the Centre for Time Use Research, and Kathy Sylva, Honorary Research Fellow and Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Oxford, who commented on our report and raised important follow-up questions.

In their presentation, the research team highlighted the originality of their study: They combined a pre-published time-use survey data, which was provided by the Centre for Time Use Research in Oxford. The data provides information on the working hours for parents for children under 5, which were combined with originally sourced data on the opening hours of childcare centres and child minders. The geographical focus was placed on two London boroughs of disparate median income, Islington and Barking & Dagenham. With reference to Childcare Act 2016, the report provides an account of the availability of public childcare in the two boroughs. The new legislative measures provide parents with 30 free hours of free childcare per week for three- to four-year-olds in England. However, the extent to which parents will be able to use up this allowance critically depends on the supply of childcare at different times in the day.

OxPolicy’s research shows that only 9 – 45 % of public childcare providers cover the entire standard working day from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Therefore availability of childcare is effectively limited for people who work at early or late hours. In addition, the hourly price of childcare outside the free hours allotment proves to be an obstacle to affordable childcare. In sum, the research revealed that the Childcare Act 2016 primarily supports parents who work up to 30 hours during standard hours. However, it is less effective in providing suitable childcare for parents working either more than 30 or outside the normal standard hours.

Reviewing current knowledge and evidence regarding the economics behind and quality of childcare in the UK, the research team suggested seven policy proposals to make childcare more accessible and affordable. These target especially the subsidization and availability of childcare, the consolidation of the childcare market, the (lack of) information on childcare as well as the standard qualification levels for carers and the awareness for child-minders.

The panel of experts at the launch event, Dr.Walthery and Professor Sylva, concluded that the report is a good foundation to kick off a wider political discussion: Which families really need free childcare? Is the current system not too much of a middle-class subsidy? What do we mean by the quality of childcare, and should government re-think its metrics? Professor Sylva stressed the importance of increasing childcare staff-to-child ratios to reduce costs. Other European countries like France, Sweden, and Denmark have greater ratios and are models in terms of their public childcare systems. To make public childcare more affordable in the UK, the reach of respective government policies needs to be widened. Especially neglected groups, like low-income parents of young children, and their needs need to be taken stronger into consideration.

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