1 February 2024

‘Free’ childcare is a middle class perk that does nothing for equality

By Jim McConalogue

The 2023 Spring Budget announced an offer of ‘30 hours a week of free childcare for 38 weeks a year, for eligible working parents of children aged 9 months to 3 years’ to be rolled out in phases from 2024. The government claims this will help with the cost of living, support education for the youngest, and remove a core barrier to parents working. Parties of all colours are pledging similar super-commitments to free childcare – although by free, we of course mean, paid for by taxpayers.

A common justification for these policies is that universal childcare (where every child is entitled to a free place at nursery or daycare) will create a fairer society by reducing achievement gaps between more and less advantaged children, supposedly ‘giving every child the best start in life’. The idea that more children in formal childcare means more equality of opportunity is echoed throughout the media as if it were a universal truth. However, this is not generally supported by the available evidence. 

A report published today by Civitas reviewed the academic literature on childcare, including studies based in the UK and abroad, and found a lack of evidence that placing children in formal childcare below the age of three leads to better long-term developmental outcomes than being cared for at home by their parents. It also found that the connection between early formal childcare and social equality remains ‘as such, largely speculative.’

There is a large pool of evidence showing that, for children older than three who are reported as having one or more social disadvantage, attending a ‘high quality’ formal childcare setting seems to enhance their ability to pass tests on the kind of cognitive and academic skills which are targeted in these settings. At least, that is, in the short term – which is all that matters to those engaged in short-term electoral cycles. But we must look beyond this. Although some studies suggest that these improvements persist throughout school years, others indicate they fizzle out before the end of school. For instance, an evaluation of the current 15-hour entitlement for three- and four-year-olds in England found no sign that it reduced achievement gaps, or had any educational benefit at all when the children reached ages seven and 11.

We also learn from international literature that children from more advantaged backgrounds are over-represented in universal childcare schemes, and that the families where children are most vulnerable do not tend to access free entitlements. If anything, where we have made our policy focus on helping professional, highly educated mothers back to work, universal childcare is more likely to subside costs for the children who’ll get the least benefit from it, while not reaching the children who would be most likely to. If these childcare schemes are simply a ‘middle class perk’, and nothing to do with equality, then politicians across the spectrum should clarify that in their messaging.

The case for universal childcare is not as clear-cut as many in the corridors of power would have us believe. It also flies in the face of what we know and understand about regular family life. Family characteristics, parenting and the home learning environment have far more influence on children’s development than childcare attendance. These factors are more fundamental than family income or socio-economic status. That is to say, irrespective of income or socio-economic status, the quality of care a child receives in the home can be high or low. 

If formal childcare can promise benefits in development where it is replacing pre-existing lower quality care, that is one thing. But we should not assume that universal childcare equals universal benefit.

At the root of this is a wider social malaise: the distrust of parents to look after their own children, and the belief that when it comes to care, government knows best. For state-subsidised formal childcare to be ‘good for’ children, the care provided must be better than the alternative they would have received. But how can we possibly say that for every single child, the state is able to provide a higher quality of care than their parents can?

There is very little evidence to support the idea that the current government’s attempts to move towards universal state-funded childcare would lead to long-term benefits for children or improved social equality. If equality is the goal, we should think again.

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Jim McConalogue is the CEO of the think-tank Civitas.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.