THE news that private nurseries are set to be exempted from business rates will be welcomed by anyone who runs such a nursery, works in one or sends their children to one – especially one that’s been struggling since April, when a revaluation pushed rates up by at much as 70 per cent. Anything that brings down the cost of childcare, and helps the Scottish Government meet its free-hours target, must surely be a good thing.

Or must it, always? That rather depends on what we think childcare is for. Despite an avalanche of evidence about the importance of early-years experiences, childcare in every form is increasingly framed as having one primary purpose: freeing up the child’s parents for work. And as long as junior is fed, watered and kept safe from harm, it often seems the priority is to find care at the lowest possible price, to avoid precious income being “swallowed up”.

Best of all is the childcare that comes completely free, because it’s being provided by a grandparent or other relative. We learned this week that on average these family members save parents £3,000 a year in childcare costs – a significant 13 per cent of the average gross Scottish salary. But of what actual value is this knowledge? Who benefits when analysts from the Bank of Scotland coldly reduce hundreds of hours of family life to a matter of pounds and pence? For those parents with no support – whether due to geography, work, death, poor health or relationship breakdown – reading those figures probably felt like a kick in the teeth. For the parents who do benefit, at best it was a reminder of their good fortune, at worst a guilt trip. For those caring, it might have felt like an insult.

Grandparents don’t merely “provide childcare” for their grandchildren – they provide love too. The average granny or grandpa takes a keen interest in every milestone achieved, every picture painted, every certificate earned. There are days out, special treats, private jokes and public displays of affection. This is not to suggest professional childcare workers are uncaring or uninvolved with their young charges, but they cannot possibly have the same level of personal investment in every boy and girl with whom they spend a few half-days a week. An hour at nursery is qualitatively different to an hour at granny’s house, and the value of each is not captured by cash sums.

The average cost of paid childcare may be £4.19 per hour, but that doesn’t mean anyone shelling out more is being ripped off. Nursery is not just for keeping children occupied – it’s an an opportunity for play, learning and socialisation at a vital stage in their development. If council-run nurseries were simply childcare facilities, they would operate to a timetable that best suited parents working 9 to 5. But they aren’t, and they don’t. If private nurseries were merely a place to store children, they could all be run at rock-bottom prices and staffed with minimum-wage workers. Parents expect nursery care to be of good quality – but it’s not clear they’re willing to pay for it.

The notion of childcare fees swallowing up wages is premised on the assumption that just about every form of work should pay better than the work of looking after young children. It’s rooted in sexism: those providing paid childcare are overwhelmingly female, and historically this work has not been valued, whereas the labour of unskilled and semi-skilled men has. The accepted wisdom that it’s not worth working if most of the money earned will have to fund childcare – as opposed to the mortgage on a fancy house, or the running of two cars, or luxury holidays – is premised on the belief that time spent in nursery is of no benefit to the child, and leisure time (a break from both paid work and unpaid supervision of children) is of no benefit to the parent.

Perhaps the private view of many parents – and mothers in particular – is that time spent looking after their young children is priceless. That even if they could earn twice or three times the sum per hour than childcare would cost, they would chose to stay at home. Or more accurately, they would chose to be with their children at home, at the park, the cafe, the soft play centre, the swimming pool, the cinema ... the phrase “stay at home mum” is hardly an accurate description in 2017, if it ever was.

It is now assumed that decision-making about the use of paid childcare is guided not by the best interests of the child or even the desires of the parents, but by a calculation of the most profitable investment of labour. With most men still out-earning most women, it follows that the option of dad “staying at home” must be rejected out of hand. Is this progress? It’s certainly not equality.

In the long run it may benefit a mother’s career if she returns to the workplace when her child is still young and pays for “wrap-around” care, even if the income she earns only just covers these costs. But this is just one factor to consider. £4.19 may be the going rate for an hour of wiping bottoms, pureeing vegetables and navigating tantrums, but along with the drudgery come moments of delight – first steps, first words, first jokes, first drawings – that cannot be scheduled to fit around office hours. Grandparents may be willing and able to pick up the slack, but reducing them to unpaid babysitters diminishes their role as relatives.

If policy-making around childcare costs becomes a race to the bottom, with low wages as well as low overheads, the Scottish Government’s target will be easily met. But if looking after children continues to be framed as an obstacle to earning, an economic inconvenience, the broader aim of making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up will not be achieved.