With debts of more than a trillion pounds and still rising, why is the government still spending upwards of £4 billion a year on childcare subsidies without having any evidence that the money is achieving its objective?
It’s not just childcare-sceptics like me who ask the question; the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) posed the same conundrum at their pre-Budget presentation(pdf) last month.
Thanks to the Lib-Lab-Con-consensus, no mainstream politician ever challenges daycare spending. The mantra of universal, affordable (ie. heavily subsidised) non-parental care, first espoused by the Blair government in 1998, has been unthinkingly adopted by the Coalition, and the state is well on the way to taking responsibility for the care of all pre-school children.
Two pretexts are provided for this expensive intervention in family life. First, that if the state provides more childcare, more women will spend more time in paid work. Second, that taking small children away from their parents for most of their waking hours will improve their later school performance and employability.
Even if you share these dismally utilitarian objectives, there is woefully little evidence that current policies will achieve them. As the IFS points out, it’s hard to find any research to prove that increasing the availability of formal childcare gets more mothers into work. Some parents using informal, unsubsidised care – by grandparents, for example – might switch to subsidised daycare, but their working patterns remain unchanged. For families already committed to using daycare, an increase in subsidies, or a free nursery place, will make them better off financially. But it does not persuade them to work more.
This should not be surprising. Surveys consistently show that families prefer to have a parent at home during the pre-school years, and that mothers in particular want more, not less, time with their young children.
The evidence simply does not support the proposition that more subsidised childcare leads to more parents working. The only exception is a small number of single parents, who are slightly more likely to get off benefits once their children qualify for free care.
What about the impact on children? Again, as the IFS makes clear, there is no evidence to show that the type of care being subsidised in the UK is of any benefit to children. Long term studies in both the US and UK show that a child’s home environment is by far the most important influence on educational outcomes. The only children who gain from spending time in pre-school care are those from the most deprived homes. Even then, full-time attendance, of the kind which enables the caring parent to go out to work, is no better than part-time. Very young children cannot sustain concentration on educational tasks, and the emotional impact of day-long separation, especially for the under-3s, is often harmful.
If politicians really want to help children from the most disadvantaged or dysfunctional families, they should pay attention to the evidence, and focus resources on intensive family-based intervention.
There is no justification – either financial or educational – for spending billions on universal childcare subsidies. Instead, governments should let parents make their own choices, through family tax breaks. This would not only return responsibility to families, it would also remove the current fiscal discrimination against households where one parent stays at home to bring up children. The state should not be acting as nanny to the nation’s under-5s, least of all at the taxpayer’s expense.