The National Childcare Strategy: the social regulation of lone mothers as a gendered reserve army of labour.

Author:Grover, Chris


New Labour's National Childcare Strategy (NCS) was outlined in Meeting the Childcare Challenge (Secretary of State for Education and Employment et al., 1998). The NCS was introduced by New Labour as a market-led approach to addressing the lack of childcare provision in England. As such, it might be held up as a 'Third Way' approach to the delivery of childcare, for it is structured through several features--including the state working in 'partnership' with the private and voluntary sectors; the state regulating, but not directly providing, public goods; and the state 'working to provide public goods (such as childcare, education and training) to underpin greater equality of opportunity'--that are held to be part of a 'third way approach to public policy' (Driver & Martell, 2002: 78). However, it has been observed (for example, Callinicos, 2001) that while 'Third Way' is used to describe an approach said to be beyond both the old left and the new right, it is actually concerned with buttressing neoliberalism. This paper develops the Callinicos argument by examining how the NCS as an area of social policy is aimed, at a general level, at consolidating neoliberalism while, more specifically, encouraging newly-important childcare markets through various forms of subsidisation.

The importance of childcare in allowing women with dependent children to take paid employment has been observed for many years (Martin & Roberts, 1984; Brown, 1989; Bradshaw & Millar, 1991; Ford, 1996; Dex & Joshi, 1999); and while it has been pointed out that there are still problems with the costs of, and access to, childcare (Rake, 2001), and more fundamental issues related to the assumptions that frame the design and delivery of the NCS in its wider context of New Labour's welfare reform agenda (for example, Duncan & Edwards, 1997; Wheelock & Jones, 2002), there is also recognition of the potential of the NCS to improve the well-being of particularly children. Pacey (2002), for example, focuses on the potential of the NCS to help New Labour in its aim of abolishing child poverty, a point also made by Rowlingson and McKay (2002: 117).

What these analyses do not capture is the importance attached to the NCS in terms of managing economic stability. The aim of this paper is to address this issue, and to provide a political economy of the NCS by focusing on the regulatory functions of the NCS in the management of neoliberalism. It does this by examining the introduction and development of the NCS through a regulation approach analytical framework, in which it is possible to explore the role of social policy in the governance of capital accumulation. Before examining the analytical framework, we need to briefly examine the components of the NCS.

The National Childcare Strategy

Meeting the Childcare Challenge argued that there were three problems with childcare in England: it was not of consistent quality, there was not enough of it, and it was not affordable. The aim, therefore, was to 'ensure good quality, affordable childcare for children aged 0 to 14 in every neighbourhood' (Secretary of State for Education and Employment et al., 1998: 6). While defining 'quality childcare' is deeply problematic (see Moss & Pence, 1994), New Labour felt that it could deal with the issue of quality through a combination of the integration of early-years education and childcare provision; a more consistent regulatory regime covering early-years education and childcare; the provision of Early Excellence Centres to disseminate good practice; and the development of a less complex training and qualification framework for childcare workers (ibid.). Over the past five years, there have been developments in relation to these. So, for example, the regulation of early-years education and childcare has been brought together at the Department of Education and Skills, and there has been work 'to rationalise and simplify the many existing qualifications [for childcare workers] into a new framework of nationally accredited qualifications' (Moss, 2000: 73). However, it is recognised that early-years services are still structured through a fragmentation of thinking which separates education from care (Moss, 2000).

While the issue of quality has some importance for our purposes--parents will not use childcare services if they do not have confidence that they are of a good standard--what is of more concern is the amount of childcare and its affordability. To increase the amount of childcare, the government has focused upon both supply- and demand-side policies. On the supply side, funding has been made available through the NCS for 'pump-priming' childcare services (investing in the hope of inducing self-sustaining expansion), particularly for out-of-school care and more recently, as we shall see, for nursery provision in poorer neighbourhoods. Much of this funding has come from the National Lottery-sponsored New Opportunities Fund. On the demand side, developments have come through New Labour's 'making work pay agenda', for the mechanisms--increased child benefit and the Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC) (now the Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit)--are held to have made childcare more affordable (Secretary of State for Education and Employment et al., 1998). As part of the 'making work pay' agenda, New Labour also introduced the Childcare Tax Credit CCTC as a subsidy for registered childcare. As we shall see, the CCTC was introduced as a financial incentive for lone mothers to take paid employment. However, it is also the main demand-side stimulus for increased childcare provision, since it aims to put childcare within the financial reach of parents with lower incomes, thereby creating further demand for childcare services.

Whether the NCS has been successful in creating more and more affordable childcare is debatable. The government claims that by 2004 it will have created a million new childcare places for 1.6 million children (Department for Education and Skills, 2000), although its basis for calculation is unclear. That said, there is evidence of market-specific increases in childcare provision, but the increases tend to pre-date the introduction of the NCS. So, for example, it is estimated that there were 2,900 day nurseries providing 87,500 places in 1990, increasing to 7,800 providers and 285,100 places in 2001 (National Statistics, 2001: 5). This increase has been driven by an increase in the number of private day-nursery providers, since the number of local authority-provided day nurseries actually decreased between 1990 and 2001. The other main source of full day care--childminders--has seen a dramatic fall in the number of providers and places offered in recent years. This decline started in 1996, and has therefore not been checked by the NCS. The number of out-of-school providers has increased from around 350 in 1992 to 4,900 in 2001 (National Statistics, 2001: 5).

There are spatial issues in relation to the distribution of childcare. The main concern is whether the private sector can 'deliver affordable, high quality and sustainable childcare in every part of the country, including to the two-thirds of poor children who do not live in the most deprived areas' (Land, 2002: 1). Land does see grounds for optimism. However, the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative (NNI) makes it clear that New Labour sees the private sector as being the childcare saviour of poorer parents.

The aim of the NNI is to fulfil the 'Government's ambition ... for every lone parent living in a disadvantaged area to have a childcare place when they enter work' (Department for Education and Skills, 2001: 1), thereby meeting the needs of 'thousands of lone parents and low income families [who] still feel that their childcare commitments stop them from working' (Department for Education and Skills, 2000: 1). The NNI aims to create 45,000 places in 900 neighbourhood nurseries with 303 million [pounds sterling] made available by the Department for Education and Skills and the New Opportunities Fund (Department for Education and Skills, 2001). However, McCalla et al. (2001: 72) question whether the private sector can resolve the childcare problems of poorer neighbourhoods, for the 'assumption remains unchallenged that with a little pump-priming, the market, in all its diversity, can be manipulated to meet government targets for childcare places'.

There is also little evidence to suggest that the NCS has actually made the cost of childcare more affordable. So, for example, the Daycare Trust has calculated that between 2001 and 2002, the cost of childcare increased by 10 per cent (Bolton, 2002). This should not be particularly surprising, for the price of childcare is being maintained by the high level of demand for it and, some evidence suggests, an upward adjustment in the charges of childcare providers because of the ability of parents to claim CCTC (cf. McCalla et al., 2001: 28).

The success or otherwise of the NCS should not be a distraction for us. What is clear is that New Labour sees the NCS as being an important social policy mechanism. Our task is to understand, in the context of the 'workfarist' shifts that have been visible in British social policy for a decade or so, the reasons for its introduction.

Social regulation and workfarism

It is now widely recognised that economic regulation is firmly embedded in social institutions and processes. Drawing upon the French regulation school, Jessop's approach (1991, 1994a, 1994b, 1999) has been crucial in developing this understanding. He uses regulation theory as a methodological framework with which to analyse the profound socio-economic changes that have occurred since the 1970S, and the location and role of the state, as a site of regulation, in these changes. Jessop's approach is important for our purposes, for it recognises that the social and the economic are inextricably linked through relationships...

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