We need a new road map for childcare in Wales

By Sarah Rees,
Head of Oxfam Cymru

Every time she looks out of the window, Alex is reminded of the inherent flaws in the Welsh Government’s funded childcare provision.

From that vantage point she can see her friend’s house – it’s just a stone’s throw away – a short but significant distance. Like Alex, her friend has a two-year-old child, but unlike Alex, she lives in a Flying Start postcode.

Flying Start is an anti-poverty programme run by the Welsh Government, which offers eligible low-income families who live in specific postcodes up to 2.5 hours a day of free childcare provision.

Unfortunately, Alex’s friend, like many other parents across Wales, is unable to use Flying Start, because her local authority prevents her from using the hours in a private nursery setting where she could top them up for a full day’s care – something other local authorities in Wales allow.

“Flying Start is a postcode lottery which makes absolutely no sense,” Alex told us.

As the UK Government prepares a roll out – plagued by technical hitches and investment concerns – of funded childcare provision to all two-year-olds in England in April, the Welsh Government’s own incongruous childcare schemes have been thrown into sharp focus with parents expressing their confusion and frustration through two petitions due to be debated in the Senedd tomorrow.

It’s easy to see why parents are up in arms.

As Oxfam Cymru research revealed at the end of last year; an inability to afford or access sufficient childcare is placing an enormous strain on family finances, as well as parents’ mental health and careers.

The lottery-like nature of Flying Start was just one of the key areas of concern raised, with parents repeatedly telling us that it didn’t provide anywhere near the level of comprehensive, flexible childcare support required to help people pull themselves out of poverty by finding and sustaining work. Simply put, even if you’re one of the few parents eligible for support, who’s going to be able to keep a job when you’ve only got 2.5 hours of childcare?

Flying Start’s sister scheme – the Welsh Government’s flagship Childcare Offer – targets a completely different cohort of kids: the three and four-year-olds of working parents who earn above a set threshold. These families are entitled to up to 30 hours of care. The catch? The hours often have to be split between two different settings; leaving many parents missing out on being able to access their full entitlement because they can’t simply up sticks and walk out of work in the middle of the day to ferry their child from one place to another.

Both Flying Start and the Childcare Offer have their faults but perhaps the most bizarre of them all is that the two schemes are entirely disconnected from each other. As it stands, there is a complete inconsistency of care: children who are eligible for funded support through Flying Start when they are two are unlikely to then be eligible for funded support through the Childcare Offer when they turn three.

Under pressure from parents and campaigners, the Welsh Government has been promising to roll out funded childcare to all two-year-olds for years; making a specific commitment to do so in its Cooperation Agreement with Plaid Cymru. But what it is doing instead is rolling out the childcare element of its existing Flying Start scheme, warts and all, at a glacial pace with no publicly available roadmap of how and when Ministers plan to widen this provision to all two-year-olds.

As parents and providers know all too well: Wales’ childcare sector is already creaking due to chronic underinvestment. Yet the Welsh Government chose not to use the additional money allocated to it by the UK Government as a result of the additional spending on childcare in England on expanding or improving childcare in Wales. Instead, the funds – a reported £180m – were used to help fill the budgetary blackhole facing Welsh Ministers, along with underspend from the existing Childcare Offer.

Of course, it’s mainly women who are paying the price for Welsh Ministers’ decisions and opaque delays, with mothers forced to either reduce their working hours or give up work entirely in order to care for their children.

As a result, women are forced into a vicious cycle of poverty: spending years in the employment wilderness and subsequent lifetimes making less money in less senior jobs than men before being faced with a pension black hole as a result of years of having no earnings.

The result of all of this? Intergenerational poverty and gender inequality across Wales becomes more and more entrenched.

It’s clear that the Welsh Government can’t go on ignoring pressure from parents, gender and anti-poverty campaigners indefinitely. Nor will Wales’ childcare issues be resolved in one 30-minute debate in the Senedd.

Instead, Ministers must recognise that it’s no good simply rolling out an already broken scheme further. Wales clearly needs a new Independent Advisory Group on childcare, consisting of external experts, which can lead an honest conversation about what’s needed and to guide the development of a clear plan for a new, fairer and more comprehensive high-quality childcare system, underpinned by sustained investment in the childcare sector.

Childcare is basic economic infrastructure, which, if designed and delivered well, can help the Welsh Government deliver on both its anti-poverty and gender equality ambitions. But right now, Wales’ childcare system does neither.

Alex summed it up perfectly, telling us: “The Welsh Government really need to make sure the system works for parents, and is implemented fairly, particularly before they roll out support for two-year-olds any further. It’s all a real mess and something clearly needs to be done.”

Ministers must listen to her plea. Now is the time to do something.

This article originally appeared at Nation.Cmyru