The crisis of childcare: who’s holding the baby?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


The cost of childcare is a perennial sore spot for families. But in recent years, competition for places and spiralling prices have meant that many are finding nursery fees unaffordable – even when both parents are in full-time employment. While fans of the government have welcomed promises to extend funded childcare hours both in age and quantity, critics have pointed to a blind spot in plans: there simply aren’t enough places to care for more children.

Outside of the numbers debate, the crisis in childcare has posed some more fundamental questions around raising children. Mums are far more likely to take career breaks, or even give up work, to be the primary caregivers for children, leading some to argue that the inability to tackle the childcare question is linked to sexist views of a woman’s place. On the other hand, some argue that governments should be focused on providing tax breaks to incentivise mothers to stay at home. ‘I wish I spent more time in the office instead of with my small children, said no one on their deathbed ever’, said Conservative MP Miriam Cates in response to the government’s budget announcing increased funding for childcare.

Some worry about what influence the institution of childcare might have on children’s upbringing. Many nurseries are no longer interested in the simple acts of feeding, sleeping and playing, with everything from development curriculums to sex education causing some concern among parents about what kids are exposed to. But others argue that returning to the model of ‘a village raising a child’ is good for children’s development, with childcare enabling mums and dads to stay in touch with the adult world, as well as exposing young children to social environments from an early age.

While mums are still expected to pick up the slack, is it possible to talk about childcare without addressing women’s freedom? Should governments be in the business of encouraging parents to make decisions, one way or another, when it comes to the organisation of family and work life? Are we being too narrow by talking about childcare and work – could a different model be imagined where creches offered respite for families on a more informal basis? And what is the conversation doing to the birth rate – are a young generation being put off having kids by the sheer scale of the challenge of holding the baby?

Anne Fennell
chair, Mothers at Home Matter; president, European Federation of Parents and Carers at Home

Naomi Firsht
journalist and commentator; co-author, The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants

Emma Gilland
politics student, University of Birmingham; co-author, The Corona Generation: coming of age in a crisis; editor, Redbrick

Beverley Marshall
AoI Parents Forum; working mum of three teenage children