An Invitation for Systems Change: #RadicalChildcare by Amy Martin & Indy Johar

Image Credit: Lily Wales

Early childhood is a crucial, time-limited period of human development and yet, in Birmingham there has been a spike in child poverty and young children’s vulnerability rates. Families in need of quality child care face a crisis of affordability and access. Wait times for early interventions for children with special needs are unacceptable. Family support programming for families with disabled children is fragile and underfunded. Young families continue to face stress from the demands of juggling caring and earning. Due to an unrealistic and rushed consultation, the PVI (Private Voluntary and Independent) sector – the main deliverer of the government’s free childcare scheme – is also facing “chronic underfunding”, according to a report commissioned by the Pre-school Learning Alliance.

Childcare stretches beyond the early years of childhood. With the decimation of youth services, opportunities for young people to take part in youth clubs and other open access services and interventions are being fiercely and detrimentally eroded, families with teenage children continue struggling to navigate provision and support for their youngsters.

Our Missing Dividend

We hear it all the time that Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe, but what if we turned this from a throwaway statistic into our reason for being? What if we were to deploy financial, human and social capital to invest in a better future for Birmingham’s children by unlocking our collective demographic dividend? That would surely be radical childcare.

Our Historic Leadership

We have a history of outstanding childcare practice. In Birmingham at the turn of the century, children’s care provision was coordinated in response to poverty and deprivation and served the poorest families. In 1904 Julia Lloyd (of the Lloyd banking family) opened and managed the Free Peoples’ Kindergarten at the Friend’s Institute, funded by the Cadbury family and influenced by Pestalozzi, Froebel and later Montessori.

It was set up “to bring to the smaller children of the poorer people the same advantages as we desire and arrange for our own”. Lloyd set up her 2nd kindergarten in Birmingham in 1907, where the curriculum was based on play, offering baths, meals, rest, and parental training.

In 1908 The Acland Report; ‘School Attendance of Children Below the Age of Five’ recommended that ideally 3-5 year olds should be at home with their mothers. As many homes were not satisfactory, the best place for these children was deemed in a Nursery School. The report goes on to advise that “the premises should be roomy, well-lit, warm and ventilated, there should be no formal lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic for young children, but they should be provided with freedom of movement, constant change of occupation, frequent visits to the playground and opportunities for sleep. There should be singing, brick-building, modelling, sorting, nursery rhymes, story-telling and equipment to include sand troughs, boxes for planting, pets and a piano”.

Childcare in its broadest sense relates to the rearing of children.

Birmingham’s pioneering childcare provision – the Free Peoples’ Kindergarten – was set up to wholeheartedly serve children. The children grew their own vegetables, visited farms and used their own hands to turn the fleece from their pet lamb into knitted garments for their dolls house.

The Second World War gave a huge impetus to the creation of provision for young children through women being recruited to work on the land and in industry, to include working in the munitions factories. Women in war work contributed 1 shilling per day (approx £4.35p in today’s money) for nursery provision including free school milk and meals.

This triggered the change; society began to understand childcare to be a “necessary” transaction, which enabled women to work.

Childcare service solutioneering today is a consequence of workforce participation among women, rather than one that imagines the best possible provision for our young children through this time-limited period of human development.

There are significant points of failure with this transactional outsourced approach to the care of children. Studies have found that around three in five preschool children (aged 0-4) received childcare for economic reasons. These include enabling parents to work, look for work, or study as opposed to making the choice based on what seems best for the child’s development. Childcare can prove expensive and rigid, with long waiting lists, large deposits, fixed contractual days and fees that duplicate the household mortgage or rent payment. The financial implications often make people feel stuck and confused. This set-up also reinforces gender stereotypes, powered by a largely female workforce (only 3% men) who are poorly paid.

‘Guilty about childcare’ yields 600,000 separate entries on a google search

It can feel transactional, depositing your child in a setting for the day whilst you go to work, and, although there is sufficient research to conclude that childcare does not pose a serious threat to children’s relationships with parents or to children’s emotional development, many parents sit with a feeling of guilt, shame and resentment.

And this is the just the beginning of the challenge. Raising curious, determined, playful collaborative children or a real future-ready “workforce” for which all the citizens of future Birmingham are equipped for, requires us to entirely reimagine our city. It must become one truly fit for children and their development, not just a marketing brochure. It requires us to reimagine our role as citizens and our collective duty to be “in loco parentis” for all our children, and requires us to reimagine the swathe of public goods and services all the way to reimagining the equitable nutrient cycle of our city.

Child care
requires us to invest across a wide spectrum of contexts, activities, social and cultural conventions, and institutions.

It requires us to imagine new institutional economics for the care of children, replacing the efficiency of transaction with empathy. Nor should it have to focus on either care or education, but creating the inclusive conditions to nurture in all senses.

Modern findings in neuroscience suggest that play promotes flexibility of mind, including adaptive practices such as discovering multiple ways to achieve a desired result and creative ways to solve problems. Play is explicitly recognised in Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Julia Lloyd understood that children’s playful behaviour and ways to support it are essential in caring for or working on behalf of children, families & communities.

So, if play represents children’s primary form of participation in their everyday lives and is central to their experience and enjoyment of living, why do we not value childcare within these terms?

Ensuring our communities and institutions are fit for children requires the cultivation of sufficient time, space and permission for play and care across multiple levels of politics, policy, practice and provision. Seeing childcare through the narrow view of economics undermines its potential.

A childcare future which enables childhood.

We understand that child rearing, and therefore childcare, should involve more than parent carers, but crucially the reason for this thinking has been lost to economics. Years ago it was the job of a village to raise a child, the interdependency of care and work within a community was in everyone’s best interest. It involves many stakeholders: grandparents, health visitors, teachers, academics, play workers, specialists, politicians, youth workers, researchers, parents and siblings and many different environments. It involves all of us, and our city.

A #RadicalChildcare future is a shared system investment. For a community to have a stake in raising resilient, dynamic, creative human beings is perhaps the best legacy our society could ever have.

Childcare for us is the archetypal “wicked challenge or problem” which cannot be addressed one magical social innovation or a brilliant policy intervention in any one particularly domain – it requires systems change at a city level.

It is increasingly clear that childcare in its fullest sense – across the UK is unaffordable to many, it is insufficiently flexible to cater to increasingly diverse demand and fails to fundamentally generate the outcomes necessary for all of UK’s families. Government attempts to improve provision seems focused exclusively on pumping money into a broken system, whereas there is an appetite and sense of urgency amongst many parents, practitioners and experts for transformative change.


In Birmingham, radical change is particularly crucial given that a third of children are living in poverty, with some parts of the city home to over 46% of children in poor households. As Europe’s youngest city, it is important we consider how we might make Birmingham the best city for young people to flourish in a time of rapid change, using childcare to unleash and uplift both children, parents and our wider community.

Unlocking this Demographic Dividend is essential for Birmingham and requires UK government to fundamentally, as part of its city devolution deal, critically perceive public expenditure as investment, in unlocking this dividend as opposed to mis- categorising it as a public cost.

Birmingham can and will yield dividends should we choose to invest for the future in our humanity

is a place-based system change platform to help accelerate systemic change in the way we imagine and deliver childcare. We propose a new methodology that brings together 10 years of practical experience in movement building around purpose-driven entrepreneurship, developing accelerator and social investment programmes, and systems thinking about city-regions.

The #RadicalChildcare programme seeks to convene a city-regional movement for change in a complex system. It will build a shared understanding of what alternatives are possible, and ultimately support and invest in a diverse range of initiatives that will create fundamentally better outcomes in the childcare domain. It will create options that are more affordable, healthy, engaging, flexible, equitable and thus generate solutions for parents and children, making a visible dent in the huge challenges that children and families face to thrive in the 21st Century.

#RadicalChildcare understands change in this world cannot be designed as a strategy written for one organisation, but has to consist of the investment in growing a movement of change. A shared inten; a mission which is an open invitation to take part and innovate together; a shared language and understanding of interdependent issues; and the distributed collective intelligence of a movement.

The #RadicalChildcare initiative is anchored in the dynamic civic platform of Impact Hub Birmingham where over the last months; our team has already invested in building a community of childcare experts, parents, design thinkers and systems change practitioners and openly designing the programme, by unlocking the power of all of us, we can help accelerate deep impact.

This is an invitation to the impassioned, curious, dreamers and doers who want to make a change, to the investors and funders. Will you get involved? Join us for dinner on Tuesday 14th June at 5pm as part as City Camp. More details to follow soon.

is an initiative to explore, imagine and invest in bold new possibilities for the future of childcare. Based in Birmingham, we want to work with parents, grandparents, professionals in the sector; commissioners, policy makers, educationalists, serial entrepreneurs and many others to develop and test radical solutions to enable children and families to thrive.

As part of our open enquiry into the childcare system we are hosting a number of events and activities in order to involve as wide a range of perspectives as possible. If you’d like to share your thoughts or be kept informed of events, submit your contact details here.

Impact Hub Birmingham is a network of amazing citizens, makers, doers, entrepreneurs, activists and dreamers, powered by a 6000 sq. ft. collaborative workshop; the Hub is an engine for passion, learning and outcomes committed to building a better Birmingham and a better world. Radical Childcare is one of three place based system change initiatives Impact Hub Birmingham will be launching in 2016/17.

Inspired and supported by the pioneering global network of Impact Hubs spanning 80 countries, Impact Hub Birmingham builds on 10 years of work practice across the network. Our Mission Roadmap outlines our strategic focus on building movements of change, research, and practice across urban innovation, social justice, systems change and institutional innovation, creating transformational change across Birmingham – an #EpicBrum.