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Childcare in Britain is a ticking timebomb. Something's got to give

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Northbrooke, Victoria
Publication Date: 
18 Aug 2015



As our politicians merrily head off on their summer holidays, having yet to finalise a plan for flexible childcare across the UK, many parents have taken drastic measures to find childcare during the school holidays.

Coordinating summer childcare often requires the planning and precision of a military commander. Some parents have been forced to send their children to grandparents hundreds of miles away while others have borrowed money just to cover the rising costs of care.

It seems the stress of finding safe, flexible and affordable childcare should come with a government health warning.

Sickies over summer soar

Last year a study from the Family and Childcare Trust found that a fifth of parents resort to calling in sick over the summer holidays in order to care for their children and 12 per cent give up work entirely, because they simply can’t find suitable childcare in the holidays. Twelve months on, I doubt the situation has changed. In fact, it’s probably worsened. (Even if you don’t have children, this untenable situation should bother you as it costs the Exchequer approximately £100m a year).

The government made grand promises before the election, pledging to double existing childcare places and to increase free provision from 15 hours to 30 hours a week but nationwide implementation has already been delayed until 2017. Plus experts have warned that nurseries are already at breaking point. A few weeks ago the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which represents 14,000 private, voluntary and independent groups, revealed that councils were already paying them insufficient hourly rates to provide the existing 15 hours of free childcare.

All the while the number of childcare places continues to fall with shortages affecting more than 1.5 million children over the summer.

This is a far cry from the ‘wrap around’ childcare provision that is so desperately needed by British working families. Believe me, I should know. As a single mum for more than a decade, managing my son’s needs around an unpredictable schedule as a make-up artist, I’ve had more than my fair share of disastrous childcare moments. (Like the time I was working on a film set transforming 60 men into ancient Greeks - don't ask - and my son bashed his head so hard he suffered concussion. I couldn’t leave but thankfully my friend could).

In Sweden, which is renowned for its flexible and progressive childcare programmes, most public nurseries offer care from 6am to 6pm - with recently increased provision to include overnight and weekend childcare services.

Here in the UK only 53 per cent of schools have ‘before and after’ school clubs during term time and only 20 per cent offer holiday childcare –as the Family and Childcare Trust report shows. Night nurseries may not sound tempting, but for the UK's army of shiftworkers and those on zero hours contracts - they are necessary.

The government's childcare offer isn't generous

So Mr Osborne’s additional 15 hours a week during school hours may sound generous but what do you do when your commute begins at 7am and you don’t return until late in the evening?

With private provision of holiday childcare places costing from £150 per week per child, many parents are really feeling the financial strain. Neither do the number and quality of local childminders meet demand.

The lucky few have access to free summer childcare places from their Local Authority. However, the Family and Childcare Trust study also discovered that only 27 percent of the local councils in England and a mere six per cent in Wales have enough holiday childcare provision for working parents.

Even if you are one of the lucky ones to secure a free place this summer you may well have grave doubts about the quality of provision.

How do you respond when your sobbing child clings to your legs, begging you not to leave them in the shabby local authority building with an unknown carer who looks barely older than your offspring? It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence at the start of a long working day. Of course they are countless childminders who are brilliant – even if they are young and underpaid. But we need to move to a situation in this country pre-school childcare is valued as a career choice and rewarded accordingly.

Recent private sector innovation has seen the introduction of Holiday Nanny Schemes, which engage university students and teachers looking to earn extra money during the holidays. This offers both quality assurance as well as additional educational benefits but comes of course, with a big price tag.

You now have a legal right to request that your employer consider a flexible working package (for instance term-time only contracts can enable working parents to fit their schedule in and around school hours and holidays). However, this request is still often met with unspoken resentment both from employers and colleagues who view you as seeking ‘special treatment’ in the workplace.

The grim reality of inflexible childcare

Some forward thinking employers have set up holiday play-schemes for their employee’s children. But sadly this is not the norm. In reality you are often forced to take annual holiday at the most expensive time of the year or in some cases even unpaid leave.

So the reality of Mr Osborne’s working Britain is that few jobs are available that fit within or around traditional school hours. Those that do - tend to be low-paying, part-time roles with little prospect of making a real financial difference to the lives of millions of working families. Moreover, lone-parent families face this reality and then some during the long summer holidays.

As single parent Natasha Brown from London, who has an eight year old son told me: “Holiday childcare is a nightmare. The cost is unbelievable. This summer my son has to stay with his grandparents 200 miles away. As a parent you feel really guilty. The summer holidays are supposed to be a special time when you want to make memories, but instead I have to drive 200 miles to visit him at weekends. This is such an important issue for parents.”

For those of us with more than one child the costs often exceed average monthly incomes. The fact is that for many mothers, and increasingly fathers too, working does not work, in the early childhood years.

The charity Mothers at Home Matter also argue that government policy is undermining the vital role stay-at-home mothers play in raising the next generation.

Affordable childcare is crucial to Britain’s economy but it is also the lack of flexible care that is a primary barrier to women returning to the workplace. Mr Osborne may want 500,000 more women to return to the UK labour market by the beginning of 2016, but how is that achievable while we still lack comprehensive out-of-school care provision?

So while our politicians sun themselves on holiday and the rest of Westminster’s focus is directed to the Labour leadership election, could somebody please spare a thought for the people who pay these peoples’ wages? Us, the hardworking parents of Britain, struggling to cope with the woeful mismatch between our 24-hour labour market 9-5 childcare services.

-reprinted from The Telegraph