If we want to give our children the best start in life, Europe shows us the way

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%
Above €70,830 41%

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
Family Benefits 5.40% 0%
Health/Sickness 13.10% 0.75%
Social Charges (CSG/CRDS etc) 0% 8.0%
Accident at Work 3% 0%
Unemployment Benefit 4.40% 2.40%
Main Pension 9.90% 6.75%
Complementary Pension 16.45% 11%
Total 52% 29%

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

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6 Responses to “If we want to give our children the best start in life, Europe shows us the way”

  1. Nick says:

    If we want to give our children the best start in life, you wouldn’t have dumped them with 250,000 pounds of debt to pay off.

  2. e says:

    In France child care workers have long since been well regarded; they are professionals with influence, which explains much of what you describe above. Whereas here we have a tradition of elevating bankers’ bean counters above all others.

    As you say “inequality is at the core of this issue” as any parent who has repeatedly had to tell a child, “No you can’t go swimming, or whatever, with your friends” can testify.

    In terms of a debt to pay off, the new generation is no different to those who came before (allow for inflation).

  3. Danny says:

    Childcare in the UK has long been overdue serious reforms. It was bad enough under the previous administration but has only gotten significantly worse under the current incumbents.

    I dropped to a 4 day working week in May 2011 as it made no difference to my income whether I worked a 40 hour week and paid for 3 days of childcare (my wife works a 3 day week) or worked a 32 hour week and pay 2 days of childcare. What it does effect is the amount of student loan I pay back, the amount of income tax I pay and the national insurance contribution I make. And I get paid pretty darn close to the average salary. It’s a ridiculous situation where if the state were to double the contribution they make to childcare in my situation (at the moment I get between £10-£11 per 5 hour session paid by the local authority) and made me working a full week pay, they would actually recoup more from me in income tax, student loan and national insurance payments than they would in increased contribution to childcare.

    My sister, a primary school teacher of 7 years, is now considering putting her career on hold because the cost of childcare for her 4 year old and 10 month old is not too far off her take home income from her job. That will be several thousands of pounds more that the treasury loses out on in income tax receipts.

    I’m sure there are tens of thousands of people in similar situations who are reducing their hours or simply not working owing to the cost of childcare, which not only results in lower tax income for the state, but also a shocking waste of talent from the economy as a whole.

    The whole system is a joke and is something that Labour should seize upon to devise a policy that will not only be a vote-winner, but could potentially also contribute significantly to the economic recovery.

  4. swatantra says:

    Good on Robin to ‘ have never have worked’. Thats what we, more parents prepared to stay at home to look after their own kids 0-3 years. Because that is the best kind of childcare possible. Of course it means sacrifices along the line. I have never seen the point of paying someone exhorbitant amounts just to look after your own offspring when you are the best to look after that offspring.
    Sacrifices like career, like part time work or 2 parents juggling and deciding which stays at home, or a single parent getting an extra allowance, or a grandparent getting an extra allowance which the Govt should be providing, or making up, or topping up a living income.
    In the long run the parent bringing up their own kids is the best investment ever, although it must be said some would have to go on compulsory parenting classes.

  5. General Bacardi says:

    Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council clearly couldn’t give a rats arse about children. Why else would they be stealing hundreds of thousands of pounds from poor children to feather the nest of one of their cronies.


  6. Lisa Brown says:

    This government talk about family values is it their intention then by closing all these childcare places that the aim is to return us to past where the man worked and the woman stayed at home to look affter the home and any children. If this is the case why not then give the instant cash loans you were helping some families to pay their childcare costs with and pay it as an extra child benefit payment.It can be means tested therfore it goes to the correct families and not the the wealthier ones where in fact the main earner is having a great enough salary to support families at the poverty end of parenthood.

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