A Manifesto for Children and Working Families in the UK

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In the fall of 2004, the UK government published its proposal for overcoming the child care challenges in the country: Choice for Parents, the Best Start in Life for Children: a Ten-Year Strategy for Child Care. This was the long-awaited and much-trumpeted pledge of the labour government to bring together the needs of working parents and the early year's entitlements of children into one coordinated policy framework. In the build up to a spring general election, everyone who is anyone in government and opposition is now involved in the child care debate.

The government's vision is of a child care system where:

  1. Parents are better supported in the choices they make about work and family
  2. Child care is available to every family and is flexible to their needs
  3. The child care services provided are amongst the best in the world
  4. The burden of costs currently falling to parents is reduced
Ultimately, the government wants to see 'universal child care more universally affordable,' particularly to enable more women and single parents to be in the workforce, so that society at large can benefit from all of the economic, educational, and social outcomes of quality preschool care and early education. Inevitably, the government's intentions, although costed, await funds actually being committed and are expected to prioritize workless households. Despite this significant political attention, employers in the UK do not see the government's plans as relieving them of the need to contribute to the new supply of child care; on the contrary, it has brought into sharp focus the gap in child care places that meet the expectations of their working parents and resonate with their own human resource objectives. Employers cannot rely on the government's plans to provide appropriate child care that they can endorse.

Many Families Still Have Difficulty Finding Care

Having studied the research, the government recognises that many families in the UK still have difficulty finding child care services that fit their circumstances and adapt as their children grow. The reasons that families are challenged with finding care vary and include the following issues:

  • Many parents still find child care difficult to afford (currently parents in the UK pay on average, 40 percent of full cost, whereas in Scandinavian countries parents contribute less than 20 percent).
  • The quality of child care throughout the UK can vary, which not only undermines parents' confidence, but also at its worst, can have harmful effects on children's development.
  • Health, education, and social services for children are not coordinated and integrated in such a way that those families that are most in need can easily access them.
  • Flexibility in the workplace is required to allow parents more time to be with their children.
  • Considerable costs accrue to both the family and society when parents are unable to return to the workforce after childbirth because of a lack of quality and accessible child care.
Ultimately, one of the most critical ways families can break out of a cycle of poverty and worklessness is with appropriate child care and family support. The government mandates that child care must respond more effectively to changing work patterns, while at the same time, put families in control, advancing the demands of the labour market and the needs of children and families together.

The main objectives of the child care strategy, which was led by the treasury as part of the pre-budget report, are to:

  • Enable parents to stay at home longer following the birth of a child
  • Provide greater flexibility to employees in the hours and patterns of work
  • Make child care more affordable
  • Improve the quality of care and early education in child care programs around the country
Government Provisions May Alleviate Child Care Challenges The biggest challenge for the government is to lift those on lowest incomes and in workless households out of poverty by enabling them to access affordable child care that provides a good start for children. The measures that follow are designed to achieve this. They are not intended to replace or reduce the need for employer-sponsored child care that adds value to their work/life objectives. Instead, they invite employers to participate in creating community solutions as well as provision for their own workforces, in a way that organisations such as IBM, Land Rover, and Microsoft UK have already done for their employees. Key provisions of the manifesto are the following:

  1. Extend the current 12.5 hours per week of free early education over 38 weeks per year (in any registered setting) to 15 hours beginning in April 2007 for 3 and 4 year olds, reaching all children in this age group by 2010, and extending the provision to 20 hours per week after 2010.
  2. Provide additional resources so that schools can extend hours of operation from 8:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m., so that by 2010, all children between 3 and 14 who need all-day care and education have it.
  3. Extend the current benefit of in-kind tax exemption to include all forms of cash payment for registered child care made by employers on behalf of employees (limited to œ50 per week).
  4. Provide a working tax credit extension to œ175 for the first child and œ300 for two children per week; and up to 80 percent...of total child care costs by 2006 for households with incomes of up to œ59,000.
  5. Establish five 'children's centres,' one for each constituency (the new concept of education, care, health and family support services under one roof).
  6. Provide nine months of paid maternity leave starting in April 2007, with the eventual goal of extending maternity leave to 12 months.
  7. Create a Children's Workforce Development Council to set new qualifications and career structures in 2005, reflecting broad acceptance in the UK of the need for a more highly qualified and specialised child care workforce.
  8. Reform the registration and inspection regime to improve standards of care and early education and include legislative and quality assurance frameworks so that programs will know how to improve the quality of care they are providing.
The government believes that parental choice of child care will only come through state intervention in regulation, subsidy, and provision, and ultimately, votes. To this end, a number of further ideas have been debated, such as the extension of tax relief to parents working in home-based careers and adoption of the European Working Time Directive, so far resisted by many, to reduce the long-hours culture of the UK.

Bright Horizons and the UK Child Care Plan

Bright Horizons Family Solutions in the UK is responding to the government's proposals as part of the consultation process that is now underway on the proposed Ten Year Strategy.? We share the government's aspirations for quality child care to reach more families, and welcome the new public appreciation of the links between work and child care.?There is no doubt that if implemented, the proposals will lead to communities that are more sustainable because more parents will be able to work and our workforce markets will be strengthened as a result. Bright Horizons plans to work with the government to create market conditions that help the early education industry make more child care for working parents work.? One of the ways we expect to be successful in these efforts is to share stories of great employer practices, such as how Cambridge University is sponsoring child care for its employees, to make sure the appropriate benchmarks and models are used to measure impact. In addition, Bright Horizons UK is exploring the potential of a planning (zoning) presumption in favour of child care centre development, using our experience in Ireland, where planning law was amended two years ago for this purpose.? From our own experience, we are supplying real stories of what working parents want and need out of child care in order to fulfill their maximum potential at work.? Our aim is to be an advocate for working families so that employers can engage more easily and in an even more meaningful and valuable way regarding the future of quality child care and early education in the UK.

Susan Hay European Chairman, Bright Horizons Family Solutions

Written by: Bright Horizons Blog Editor

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