by Robin Thorpe
In 2007 a UNICEF study ranked children in the UK as having the lowest levels of well-being in the developed world. When compared with 21 other industrialized nations in the OECD the UK ranked bottom on three out of the six dimensions of well-being and bottom overall.
A UNICEF UK report into this published in 2011 found that good relationships with family and friends are key to children’s long-term well-being. The report also found that relative wealth was a factor in a child’s well-being. Children who don’t have enough to fit in with their peers are less happy, as are children in households which have seen their income drop unexpectedly, or are uncertain about their economic future. Inequality is at the core of this issue;
“Where parents are paid at, or close to, the minimum wage, they often must work long hours or take several jobs in order to make ends meet and this can impact on their ability to spend quality time with their children.”
Paying for childcare is a significant factor in determining the working life of many parents in the UK. Some people are unable to work because they can’t afford child-care, many more choose to work fewer hours to minimize the cost of their childcare and some can’t find work that fits around the available child-care options and therefore don’t work.
Others work extra hours to pay for their child-care and therefore spend less time with their children then they would like. By comparison many French mothers return to work part-time within 3-6 months of giving birth; they can do this because the French municipal authorities provide subsidized crèches for infants from 2 ½ months old. For parents on low-incomes crèche is entirely free. In addition French municipal authorities provide free nursery provision for all children between the ages of 2 to 6. Most children do not attend full-time at 2; however by 3 most children attend at least 4-days a week.
The situation in the UK is somewhat different; the tax credit system devised by the treasury under Gordon Brown had a childcare element to it, which did help people on low-incomes to pay for nursery provision (I know because my wife claimed it for our eldest child). These tax credits have now been cut. The Sure Start initiative was one of the key components of the last Labour governments policy of giving every child the best possible start in life and which offers a broad range of services focusing on family health, early years care and education and improved well-being programmes to children aged 4 and under. 281 Sure Start centres have been closed since the election. Child-minder fees — which are up to £15,000 a year — rocketed 20 times more than wages in 2011.
These cuts to initiatives designed to help people with the cost of childcare mean that those on the lowest wages or looking for work in low-wage jobs (which, lets face it, most part-time jobs are) are having to get by on less money; a situation that can surely not enhance the well-being of these families. This problem will only grow more acute with the below inflation rise in tax credits and child benefit announced in the recent autumn statement.
How do the French pay for this? The French have a similar GDP to the UK but collect significantly more tax. A circumstance that I’m sure would not be very popular in the UK. Having done a little research into how the tax system works in France I was pleasantly surprised at how egalitarian it is and it explains how they can have such generous health, early-years and pension provision. Income tax is not too dissimilar to the UK, except they have more levels so that those on lower incomes pay less as a proportion of their earnings.
|French Income Tax Bands – 2012||Tax Rate|
|Up to €5,963||0%|
|Between €5,964 – €11,896||5.5%|
|Between €11,897 – €26,420||14%|
|Between €26,421 – €70,830||30%|
The social security system that they have is far more complicated then the UK, yet this is because it is far more prescriptive. The OECD estimates that employer social security contributions in France amount to an average of around 30% of an employee’s salary. However, the computation of the charges is fiercely complex, so they should not be read as a straight percentage of the salary. Because of the method of computation this is lower than the headline number of around 50% in the table below; although it is still one of the highest in the world.
|Employer and Employee Social Security Rates||Employer||Employee|
|Social Charges (CSG/CRDS etc)||0%||8.0%|
|Accident at Work||3%||0%|
While I am not suggesting that the UK switches wholesale to the same taxation policy as France it is worth noting that there is an alternative to expecting individual families to pay directly for their childcare while the parents go to work. The French employers of course end up paying for their workers childcare through the tax-system but this does mean that those on the lowest wages are more able to take part in society. This is an important socio-economic distinction, as studies have shown that personal well-being is improved through being gainfully employed. There are therefore gains for both parent and child.
The coalition government plan to help people fund their childcare requirements by extending the tax-relief available through the voucher schemes. Nick Pearce explains in his IPPR blog why this is not an effective way of making childcare more affordable for families and states that “stable funding of providers via the supply side is more effective and efficient than demand-side subsidies”.
One of the marked differences between early years provision in schools within the UK and within the rest of Europe is the age at which they begin formal education.
By this I do not mean when they attend an establishment “full-time” or when they begin to sit in rows of desks; rather I mean when children begin to be formally taught phonics, reading, writing and mathematics. In the UK this happens when children are 5 years old; the Netherlands and Malta are the only other country in Europe that commence at this age (Australia and New Zealand do too). Children in France, Germany, Spain and Italy begin formal education at 6 (as they do in the USA) and the Russians and Scandinavians wait until a child is 7. There is no evidence that those children who start learning number sentences and to read books at this early age have an advantage, if anything the reverse is true.
Early Childhood Action (ECA) an alliance of early-years practitioners and organisations has been formed recently to raise the profile of this issue and influence the government’s final revision of England’s statutory early years foundation stage. One of the key members of this group is Dr Richard House of Roehampton university; A book edited by him and published in 2011 “Too Much too Young” provides a collection of essays by childhood experts from around the world who believe that our tendency to over-focus on cognitive development (at the expense of social, emotional and physical development) is the main reason things have gone wrong in the past. ECA propose instead that “free imaginative play should be at the centre of young children’s experience and learning”.
A key part of this framework is not just that children develop awareness of their own body through practical play but also that children learn how to interact with other children and how to behave in large groups. One of the findings of the report commissioned by UNICEF UK in 2011 was that participation in creative and active pursuits, pursuits that children said made them happy, had dwindled in the UK. Significantly they found that there was less participation in these pursuits amongst deprived children, a consequence not just of less money, but less parental interaction and less certainty about the roles operating within families.
The solution to improving levels of well-being is not merely economic, but would seem to require a re-evaluation of the role of local authorities, schools and the family. The European model of state-funded childcare is recommended as an “effective and efficient” way of providing affordable child-care. This is important in providing parents the opportunity to work, thereby participating in society and improving their own sense of well-being, without having to work long or anti-social hours to ‘make ends meet’. The emphasis placed on cognitive development in the early years curriculum would also seem to be misplaced. Encouraging “imaginative play” is recommended as the foundation for future personal growth. More importance should be placed on social, emotional and physical development at this early stage to ensure that well-being in later life is improved.
Robin Thorpe is a parent and a school governor and has never worked for the Labour party