As well as having an important role in child development, the pandemic shone a spotlight on the role childcare plays in supporting the economy. A lack of affordable childcare is a major barrier to work, particularly for mothers. “A world class early years and childcare service that delivers for children while supporting parents to work” is considered key to achieving the Welsh Government’s aim to become a world leader in gender equality.
Ahead of the Senedd debating the Equality and Social Justice Committee (ESJ) report on childcare and parental employment, this article looks at how far along this journey Wales is, where the gaps are in childcare provision, and the Welsh Government’s future commitments.
Welsh Government funding for childcare support
The Welsh Government currently funds several types of childcare provision for different age groups, in different areas:
- All children in Wales are entitled to at least 10 hours per week Foundation Phase nursery care from the term after their third birthday until they start school full-time. In practice many local authorities offer more.
- Under the Welsh Government’s ‘Childcare Offer’, many working parents are eligible for 30 hours per week free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds for 48 weeks per year. The 30 hours is made up of a minimum of 10 hours of early education a week and a maximum of 20 hours a week of childcare.
- The Flying Start programme provides free childcare for parents of 2-3 year olds living in the areas defined as being the most disadvantaged in Wales for 2.5 hours per day, 5 days a week. This provision is available for 39 weeks per year, with at least 15 sessions of provision during school holidays.
In it’s Programme for Government, the Welsh Government commits to funding childcare for more families where parents are in education and training or on the edge of work. Subsequently, as part of the Co-operation Agreement, funded childcare provision will be extended to all two year-olds. On 15 March, the Welsh Government set out details of the first phase of this expansion – the extension of the Flying Start programme later this year.
Does current childcare provision help tackle gender inequalities?
The gap between statutory maternity leave finishing and Welsh Government-funded childcare provision beginning impacts on parents’ careers, particularly mothers. In November Chwarae Teg said to the Committee that:
By this point, many parents have already made decisions about how to change their working patterns to accommodate caring responsibilities. This often results in women reducing their hours or leaving the workforce entirely.
Research from Arad has found that, while many parents had been able to increase their earnings or work flexibly, some questioned how much the Childcare Offer incentivises starting or returning to work. The Women’s Equality Network Wales also painted a mixed picture, commenting that a lack of provision for under-three’s; inconsistency in availability and flexibility across Wales; and a lack of accessible information can limit the impact childcare provision has on mothers’ employment.
Looking to international experiences, the Swedish Gender Equality Agency suggested that childcare has been one of the pillars of Swedish gender equality policy since the 1970s. A long-term approach to publicly-funded childcare has led to higher female employment, with the greatest impacts seen when funding was made available to unemployed mothers.
Is there equal access to childcare?
The ESJ Committee’s recent inquiry into Childcare and parental employment. highlighted gaps in access to childcare provision, concluding; “the welcome move to expand free childcare provision must be accompanied by more Welsh Government action to address these issues.”
The Millennium Cohort Study found that, by the time they turn three, children from the poorest families are around 10 months behind those from better-off backgrounds in terms of development. The Children’s Commissioner says large-scale investment, such as the Childcare Offer, should not exclude children from non-working families, as this reinforces these inequalities.
The Childcare Survey 2022 found that no local authority in Wales had sufficient childcare in all parts of their authority for children with disabilities. There are widespread concerns about provision for children with disabilities. These include difficulties in finding provision; negative consequences of the pandemic; and facilities not always being suitable.
Stakeholders suggest that ethnic minority communities are under-represented in the childcare workforce, with examples of a lack of cultural awareness among providers. The Welsh Government will undertake work on the under-representation of ethnic minority communities in the childcare workforce. It will include actions to reduce childcare inequalities in its Race Equality Action Plan.
Despite previous Welsh Government investment, concerns about limited access to Welsh-medium childcare provision, and difficulties recruiting Welsh-speaking staff, remain.
“We’re on zero-hours contracts and we’re minding the future”
There are also widespread concerns around the level of insecure and low-paid work within the sector, and that this was contributing to labour shortages. As one frontline worker told the ESJ Committee, “We’re on zero hour contracts and we’re minding the future”.
Childcare sector employers have suggested that being paid a higher hourly rate under the Childcare Offer by the Welsh Government would enable them to raise wages. Since then, the Welsh Government has announced that the hourly rate will increase from £4.50 per hour to £5 from April.
In its expansion of childcare provision, the Scottish Government has focussed on ensuring that all childcare workers are paid at least the Real Living Wage. As with Wales, employment law is not devolved to Scotland, which makes achieving this harder. The ESJ Committee recommended that the Welsh Government learn from the approach taken in Scotland, to enable it to set a timescale where childcare workers in Wales are paid at least the Real Living Wage.
International Women’s Day: a spotlight on childcare
To mark International Women’s Day on Tuesday 8 March, Members of the ESJ Committee met with representatives of CWLWM, Women Connect First and Single Parent Wales to discuss the Committee’s report.
The Panel welcomed the Committee’s report and the expansion of the Childcare Offer but also: identified several areas of concern, including:
- Ensuring eligible parents take-up the Childcare Offer.
- Increasing levels of pay to reflect the qualifications required, and pay of similar roles within the teaching profession.
- Challenging the ‘lack of respect’ shown to the sector.
- Providing more support for those parents who work atypical hours to ensure equality of access to good quality, affordable childcare.
What about the future?
In relation to the expansion of the Childcare Offer to two-year olds, the Welsh Government said that:
While the policy is still in development, when fully implemented it would make the provision of childcare for 2 year olds in Wales the more generous of the home nations.
Stakeholders and parents will be eager to hear more detail on how this commitment will be delivered. The expansion of the Childcare Offer has been welcomed by organisations such as Mudiad Meithrin and Chwarae Teg. However, it remains unclear how much impact the expansion will have on gender inequalities in parental employment, particularly if some of the barriers highlighted by the Committee remain.
You can watch the debate on the ESJ Committee’s report on Senedd TV on 30 March.