National neglect: how the UK views holiday childcare

The holidays are coming and many parents will be worrying about how to cover childcare over the next weeks.



We’re into July and the school holidays are coming up fast. We know from years of polling that many parents don’t make summer holiday childcare plans until the last minute because most people are battling with the everyday logistics problems and find it hard to look that far ahead. So don’t worry if you don’t have everything sorted.

The polls we did were before Covid. Once you add all the uncertainty that has come about as a result of the pandemic [plus the fact that holiday childcare is still not back to normal yet], the exhaustion of battling childcare/homeschooling and Covid and the after effects of Covid [such as mental health issues for children] as well as the cost of living crisis and the various crises that seem to surface daily at the moment, many parents are just about gripping on, if only by their fingernails. Everyone could do with six months off, but, even if they could afford it, it looks as if going away or travelling just about anywhere may bring more stress than relaxation.

In the next few weeks there will be a raft of surveys about holiday childcare – the cost, avaiability and so forth – and we will, of course, be reporting on these. Holiday and wraparound childcare didn’t get a look in the Government’s recent announcement on childcare, which focused on early years ratios and childminders. It seemed to be mostly about reducing quality in the hope that that will lead to some sort of savings for parents, although most childcare providers don’t seem to think it will make any difference to the fees they charge. It’s a nod to childcare, after a very long period of neglect, so the Government can say it has done something about it, but with very little sense that it actually gets the scale of the problem.

In part that is because many parents have found their own ways around the problem, using a network of family and friends so they don’t have to pay anything for childcare. That network is subject to occasional breakdowns – if a grandmother is ill, for instance – engendering all sorts of logistical shennanigans. The impact of that haphazard, last-minute approach where logistics is on your mind for a good part of the working week is reduced hours, precarious, low paid jobs, relationship issues for ‘tag-team’ parents who are on different work/childcare shifts, productivity falls and much more. It doesn’t make sense on any level – economic, personal or social.

But it stems from a lack of interest in how people really live and what makes a difference. We know that there have been nursery closures and a significant fall in childminder places over the last few years and that Covid has accelerated this. The problem is that the situation is so different in different parts of the country. In wealthier areas, where parents can afford top-up fees in nurseries the numbers have not fallen as much as in more deprived areas. Nursery chains have been able to supplement the income from their nurseries in more deprived areas with that from their nurseries in lower income areas. But many childcare providers are not part of chains. A range of different childcare apps have sprung up to take advantage of the lack of flexible, affordable childcare, but many, often despite their best intentions, seem to be focused on those wealthier areas where there is both demand and the ability to pay. To ensure national coverage of all types of childcare requires significant government investment.

Flexible working is another popular way of excusing the government from responsibility for investing in childcare. It puts the onus on employers. But flexible working is not a panacea. Anyone who had tried working from home with a toddler knows that. And most homeworking, we are told, is being done by wealthier people in management-level jobs who can presumably afford childcare. Meanwhile, flexible childcare that works around shift work – particularly irregular shift work or self employment – is hard to come by.

So when it comes to the school holidays, parents will no doubt continue to do what they have done up to now – put one foot in front of the other and hope for the best. It doesn’t have to be like that, though. Meanwhile, expect lots of kids to be left at home alone because that is likely to be the reality. The numbers were already rising before Covid. That’s what happens in a system of national neglect.

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