2013 is a big year for me. My son reaches 16 in March and I am ready to celebrate, having spent nearly 26 years worrying about and paying for childcare. It didn’t help that I had my two children ten years apart nor that I had four major career changes in that time each needing different arrangements to accommodate the working day, travel to and from work, overnight stays and national travel.
As a single parent for the majority of this time and with no access to extended family (for 21 years), I think childcare has represented the biggest and most stressful part of my working life:
- The running around at 6.30 in the morning wrestling with a grumpy uncooperative child trying to zip them into their all in one and strap them into the child seat, so I can grab the 7.30 train.
- The dreaded telephone call from school to say that they have come out in chicken pox and can’t return for ten days – just when I have a really busy time at the office and still have to pay for care I am not receiving.
- Or the monthly dent in my bank account often leaving me with little more than enough money to live on, pay for nappies and travel to work.
But not anymore!
I have used childcare over three government administrations, spanning three decades the 80s, 90s and 00s, researched and funded childcare as part of my job in the 90s and 00s and have been passionate about the challenges facing working parents all my life.
What has remained unchanged over all these years is affordability and accessibility despite research, policy papers, commissions, programmes, legal duties, tax credits and funding I doubt we are much further forward on issues around affordability than where we were in the eighties. Initiative-itis and shifts in childcare policy over the years have in my view failed to address the fundamental question on whether childcare should be free or subsidised to the extent that it does not prohibit or restrict access to employment. The focus on 0-5’s nursery provision has meant that the needs of school age children are under-served, because part time places do not provide the financial returns of a full-time place. My greatest headaches have been around finding wraparound and holiday care, my experience of school based provision was not good. The inflexibility of picking up times meant that I went back to using a childminder even though I believe school or community based provision can be more appropriate for this age range.
Last year the Government commissioned a consultation on childcare, led by the Department for Education, the Government was supposed to report in the Autumn but rumours point to an imminent publication. The commission sought views on the following issues:
- Ways to encourage the provision of wraparound and holiday childcare for children of school age.
- Identifying any regulation that burdens childcare providers unnecessarily because it is not needed for reasons of quality or safety.
- How childcare supports families to move into sustained employment and out of poverty.
I hope I am not been too disingenuous by saying that I am not expecting much to change as a result of the report. What can we expect? Some flexibility on staffing ratios? A small pump priming fund? Some business support or start up funding for private sector provision?
What we really need is an honest debate about childcare and for governments to stop tinkering around the edges when something far more radical and effective is needed. The IPPR is due to publish a report next month on the economic returns of universal childcare, their article this week in the Telegraph sets out some of the key challenges facing families now.
We also need to avoid the discussions that working and having children is about “having it all” or that it is unfair on people without children by subsidising childcare. The kinds of choices faced by the majority of working women who are on low or medium incomes are about surviving and supporting their family the best way they can.
I ran a childcare programme back in the 90s and got caught up in a debate with a senior female colleague who had decided not to have children and thought that Government subsidies and support for childcare was a waste of money. I asked her if she had a pension and if she had made provision for her future care and support when she was older. She was stumped and couldn’t understand why I was asking her the question. As I began to walk away I reminded her that children growing up then would be paying for her state pension and care through taxation when they got older.
Till next week.