|In a relatively short period of time, United Kingdom policy has come a long way in its efforts to tackle child poverty and enhance child development. The United Kingdom has more than doubled spending on childcare since the late 1990s, to 0.4% of GDP in 2003/4. Financial support for childcare is now given to more families – it was extended from 180,000 low and middle-income working families in 2002 to 317,000 in 2004, and the Working Tax Credit covers up to 70% of childcare costs (to be extended to 80%) for low-income families.
Even so, families still find it hard to reconcile work and family life, and further efforts are needed if British parents are to have the same opportunities as those in the best-performing countries such as Sweden and Finland. Access to affordable care remains a problem, with out-of-pocket costs high enough to be a barrier to work. Estimates of average parental fees in the UK range from 45 to 75% of the cost of childcare – 2 to 4 times more than in Finland and Québec in Canada, and 4 to 8 times more than in Sweden. Thus, it often does not pay for both parents to hold down full-time jobs. As a result one parent working full-time and the other part-time is the norm in the UK.
The offer of free early education for 2.5 hours/day for 3 – 4 year olds in nursery schools is aimed at strengthening child development and reducing the parental share of the cost of childcare. The government is promising to extend free early education to 15 hours/week for 38 weeks/year. This will still leave many parents resorting to private day care and taking time off to transport children from one care source to another - an organisational challenge which could force many more out of full-time employment. Babies and Bosses suggests that childcare support needs to be provided in a more coherent way.
The quality, cost, and opening hours of childcare facilities in the UK are also thorny issues for parents. Only 40% of day-care providers are inspected under quality-assurance schemes. In keeping with UK government plans, Babies and Bosses recommends that the government apply quality control systems to more childcare facilities to ensure that day-care workers meet stringent qualifications and give home-based childminders access to support services provided by local Children’s Centres.
New UK policy will provide supervision to older children whose parents work full-time so they don’t become latch-key kids at risk of behaviour problems. Through studying other countries, Babies and Bosses has seen that out-of-school-hours care services can help parents combine their family and working commitments, at about one-third the cost of regular day-care services.
It is in the interest of all families, including sole parents, to have paid work to reduce the risk of poverty and long-term benefit dependency, and to help their children develop. In many countries, sole parents and women have about the same employment rate. In the UK, however, only 54% of sole parents have paid jobs, half of them part-time. To rectify this, the government has mandatory Work-Focused interviews, the New Deal for Lone Parents, and fully integrated benefit and employment support services through Jobcentre Plus to encourage sole parents to enter the work force.
However, unlike most countries, the UK does not have a work test in the income support system for sole parents and job search and childcare assistance through the New Deal for Lone Parents is based on voluntary participation. Babies and Bosses suggests that when effective employment and childcare support are available to sole parents on income support, some form of compulsory work-related activity (including skills upgrading) could be introduced in order to ensure that they look for a job more actively.
Based on its review, the OECD’s Babies and Bosses report suggests the following policy recommendations to improve the balance of work and family like in the United Kingdom:
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