Opportunity for Childcare: The Impact of Government Initiatives in England upon Childcare Provision

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    Blackwell Publishers LtdOxford, UKSPOLSocial Policy & Administration

    1445596 Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 2001Octover 20023651000Original Article

    Opportunity for Childcare: The Impact of Government Initiatives in England upon Childcare Provision

    Simon Rahilly and Elaine Johnston


    This paper considers the impact of recent government initiatives upon childcare provision forchildren under the age of five. It is based upon interviews with parents and providers from twocontrasting wards in Liverpool. The aim of the research was to identify key issues and concernswith regard to childcare, and perceptions about the impact of developments within social securityand education provision. Government policies have concentrated on supporting working parentswho need to pay for formal childcare, and on providing an earlier start to the formal educationof young children. There is a fear that this focus may be failing to recognize and support thediversity of families and their childcare needs.


    Childcare; Social security; Welfare to work; Early years education


    In recent years government policies have begun to highlight the need foraffordable childcare to enable parents to access paid work as the primarymeans to maintain their children. It has been argued that the demise of thehusband as breadwinner and wife as carer model, upon which the post-war welfare settlement was based, has required new policies to ensure themaintenance and care of children (Land

    a; Lewis

    ). Changes infamily composition have increased the number of children in householdswith one parent, and higher female participation in the labour market hasincreased the number of children in households with two parents who areboth in paid work. The two types of household share common problems ofattempting to combine the care and the maintenance of their children, andthe fact that informal and unpaid childcare may no longer be available fromfriends and family means that it is now a subject that has to be consideredby policy-makers.

    Address for correspondence:

    Simon Rahilly, School of Law and Applied Social Studies, LiverpoolJohn Moores University,

    Myrtle Street, Liverpool, L

    DN. E-mail: s.j.rahilly@livjm.ac.uk.

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    While the need for childcare does not cease when the law requireschildren to attend school, this marks a significant stage and the end-point forthis study which set out to consider the impact of government initiativesupon childcare provision for children under the age of

    . The aim was togauge the reactions of parents to recent government policy initiatives toextend the financial assistance available to working parents on low incomes,and to extend the provision of free nursery education to all

    -year-oldsand many

    -year-olds. The fieldwork was all carried out in Liverpool inthe summer of

    , and was based in two contrasting wards of the city.Childcare for


    -year-olds can be provided informally by parents, byfamily and friends. Alternatively, it can be provided formally by voluntaryand charitable organizations, by private sector (for-profit) organizations, orby the local authority social services or education departments, where nurseryeducation for

    - and

    -year-olds may be seen by parents as an importantsource of childcare.

    Helen Penn (

    ) identifies three distinct strands which continue to leavetheir mark in terms of differing policy and practice in childcare and nurseryeducation. First, there is nursery education which is provided within schools,by qualified teachers and nursery nurses. This is available at no cost toparents, who may or may not be working, but is usually only provided on apart-time basis, and only for

    - (and some

    )-year-olds. Second, there ischildcare provision which is bought by working parents, often on a full-timebasis, for children over the whole age range

    , from childminders and priv-ate and voluntary sector nurseries, where childcare is provided by nurserynurses and unqualified care staff. Third, there is what Penn calls welfarecare, provided for vulnerable children or children in need (or children livingin communities in need). This is provided by social services, or with grantaid by voluntary sector day nurseries and family centres, etc., to parents whomay or may not be working, at reduced or nil cost.

    All three strands of provision for the under-

    s have been subject toreforms. Local education authorities were required to ensure that a freeplace became available for all

    -year-olds by April

    , with targets toextend this provision to

    -year-olds, while the social security Welfare-to-workprogramme has required the government to ensure that there is sufficientchildcare available, and that it is both affordable and accessible.

    Government interdepartmental policy papers have attempted to ensurethat policies are coherent and that departments are working together. How-ever, the research by Helen Penn suggests that the reforms have been drivenby different departmental concerns, and that none has an explicit philosophyof childhood. It is also possible that changes in one sector will impactupon the others. Thus the growth in nursery education within schoolsmight be accompanied by a reduction in grant aid to, and provision by, thevoluntary sector. This fear was not allayed by the governments discussionof early years provision within its Departmental Report (DfEE

    ). Chapter

    (Laying firm foundations) discusses the need to sustain good-qualityvoluntary sector provision during the period between . . . the introduction ofthe National Minimum Wage, . . . Working Families Tax Credit . . . andfunding for three-year-old places in all local authorities (DfEE



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    The outcome could be a reduction in the choice available to parents withlow incomes. An additional concern is that the provision of childcare creditsmay merely result in increases in the charges made by childcare providers.

    Ann Barlow and Simon Duncan have questioned the assumptions behindthe governments welfare-to-work initiatives (Barlow and Duncan

    ).Providing additional cash for childcare costs as a means of removing abarrier to work assumes that parents decisions are driven by economic con-siderations. Barlow and Duncan argue that this ignores the importance ofmorals in decision-makingin this context parents socialized perceptions ofhow they should best care for their child. These initiatives may heighten thetensions between wanting to provide the best arrangements for both the careand the maintenance of children (Land

    a; Driver and Martell


    Recent Developments in Government Policy

    The imperative to promote equal opportunities within education led to afocus on the importance of early years learning, while the availability ofaccessible childcare was seen as essential to enable parents to work and thusmove off benefit.

    Education policy

    Education was the incoming Labour governments number one priority, andearly learning was seen as the key to ensuring that each child had the bestpossible start to their education. The government set a target for free nurseryeducation to be available for every

    -year-old child whose parents wanted itby April

    . Targets for nursery places for

    -year-olds were soon to beset

    per cent by March


    per cent by March

    and a promiseof nursery provision for all

    -year-olds by

    . Funding was to be madeavailable to enable new nursery provision to be developed, especially indeprived areas. Alongside the expansion of nursery provision came devel-opments in the national curriculum with the introduction of Early LearningGoals. The Care Standards Act

    transferred all early years regulatoryresponsibility in England from social services departments to the Office forStandards in Education (Ofsted).

    Social security policy

    In March

    the government published

    A New Contract for Welfare

    , its GreenPaper on social security (DSS

    ). In his foreword the prime minister speltout his commitment to rebuild the social security system in such a way thatit would encourage people of working age to receive their income fromwages rather than benefits. The Green Paper attributed the increasing num-bers of children living in poverty to the growth of workless households, andhighlighted the growing numbers of lone parents who were out of work. Tosupport the governments belief that paid work was the surest route out ofpoverty, policies had to help unemployed people find work, to removebarriers to work, and to make work pay.

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    The governments aim is to increase the percentage of lone parents inemployment (currently about

    per cent) up to the levels found in the USA(

    per cent) (





    ). All benefit claimants (includinglone parents) are now required to discuss work opportunities in an interviewwith a personal adviser. While the main focus of the New Deal for LoneParents was to be those with children of school age, it would also be availableto those with preschool children. Those lone parents who took up wagedwor