Childcare moves up the political agenda…at last

Childcare is all over the news at the moment in the lead-up to the Budget and the focus on workplace equity for International Women’s Day. The pressure is on, but what will the Government deliver and why is it still seen as mainly a women’s issue?

Close up of child's hands playing with colorful plastic bricks and red motocicle at the table. Toddler having fun and building out of bright constructor bricks. Early years childcare


Childcare is everywhere at the moment in the run-up to the Budget and the lead-up to International Women’s Day – even though childcare should not be just a woman thing. It feels as if the shared parenting thing has gone backwards of late and it is just assumed – as it has been for many years – that it is only related to women’s wages and not a collective hit on household income. That’s probably because it is mainly women who take the career and earnings hit while men get locked in the main earner/long hours culture. It feels sometimes as if we are only inching forwards and that in many ways we aren’t moving forward at all.

Every day there is a new survey on some aspect of childcare. Which is great because childcare is now actually getting into the news where before it was considered a more niche issue. That’s no doubt because it is hitting middle income families, like housing and health and all the other things that are now considered a crisis or an emergency. All of them are in some way linked. Yet you go to some parts of London – near Bond Street, say – and some people seem to have money to burn. How has the division become so large and does a Government run by multi-billionaires have the capacity to fully grasp that division?

But, having somehow seen the light on the impact of childcare costs and availability, some newspapers seem to present childcare as the only problem holding women back. Take a survey out today saying two thirds women say that childcare responsibilities have held their career back. There’s absolutely nothing new about that. Our surveys have been saying similar for years. Yet now it’s headline news because of the Budget and presented as if it’s all about childcare. Only. It’s not. From my own experience, it was about bullying, lack of empathy at work, lack of flexible senior roles, not wanting to travel far or often because of the kids, not wanting to be too far from the school in case of emergencies, my partner’s employer not being flexible and because I wanted to be involved in my children’s lives. And many other reasons. Childcare is in there, but it’s not the panacea and it lets employers and, in many cases, men off the hook. And it’s not just pre-school childcare either, where a lot of the emphasis seems to be.

Which is not to say that it isn’t a good thing that childcare is getting more attention, tied today to International Women’s Day, as if only women are affected. In the main, of course, it is women whose careers are affected, but that doesn’t make it solely a “women’s issue”.

We have a poll on childcare this week – on expectations for the Budget, the impact on working hours of childcare costs – and not just rising economic inactivity – as well as what happens when childcare arrangements break down.  So many parents are juggling a patchwork of childcare arrangements – for instance, using the 30 hours for three and four year olds in the mornings and getting grandparents to pick up at lunchtime to cut the bills. These kind of complex arrangements rely on no part of the childcare combination breaking down. Yet so often something does go wrong – a childminder or grandparent gets sick or a childminder decides to pack it all in. Trying to manage on constant back-up solutions and quickly thought through ‘solutions’ is exhausting. It’s hard therefore to quantify the impact of the childcare problem in this country on parents.

The poll will be followed by another after the Budget to see what parents think of whatever is proposed – and surely something must be proposed this time round. There are, however, a lot of emergencies that need dealing with these days in what we are constantly told is one of the world’s richest economies. While providing the infrastructure – childcare, social and healthcare – to get people into work and encouraging them to do more hours may be one way of addressing inequality, it is not sufficient on its own. It doesn’t address, for instance, the issue of low pay and insecure work. There is much more to be done to ensure sustainable futures for families.

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