I was asked at the weekend whether I had come across any holiday childcare “gems” over the years. I would like to have responded with a long list, but the truth is that, since we moved out of London and into a small village there has been a distinct lack of gems. There are, of course, the usual things like sports-related courses [at a price, particularly gymnastics – we’ve only done the free taster session. We’ve done a lot of free taster sessions over the years]. Local nurseries run holiday schemes for primary-aged kids, again at a price. That would be fine if I had one child, but I have four. The oldest, fortunately, don’t need holiday childcare now, but back in the day they did. The cost of holiday childcare for one day [that was all I used it for] for two children – and nursery for the third – was significantly more than my earnings for the day. Plus most of the courses are for particular ages of children and tend to be from 10am-3pm.
So mainly I rely on my mum who lives nearby, but she is not always around and, if you rely on one person, the chances that they could get sick or some such is always something to be factored in. We have no other relatives nearby. My partner’s family are all in Spain. My brother is in Argentina – a bit of a way to come to look after the kids for a couple of days. This is not a poor me thing. It is just real life. I am fortunate to have my mum so near. I am extremely fortunate to be able to do a job which can be done mainly from home, to be mainly freelance and to be able to patch together some sort of “portfolio” career to make it all somehow hang together because over the summer I can work late into the night and start early. That makes a huge difference. Otherwise, quite honestly I do not know how I would be able to make it work, but I would have to because otherwise we would be unable to pay the bills.
Of course, there are a few great and innovative parent-led schemes I know of through work that have endeavoured to address the huge problem of holiday childcare and, indeed, childcare in general, particularly flexible childcare. The challenge is making them affordable and widely available. So what is the government’s response? So far its initiatives relating to childcare are to double free childcare for three and four year olds during term time only and tax free childcare – a 20% discount on childcare costs at registered childcare providers for those aged under 12 [being phased in from early 2017]. There are many concerns about funding of the former and about whether nurseries will be able to afford to offer it. Meanwhile, the latter, if it is not delayed, should offer some degree of help for parents who can’t claim tax credits – and for the first time it entitles the self employed to some discount. Those on lower incomes can claim tax credits, which will be restricted to two children from next year [ie if you have a third child after 2017 they will not qualify for tax credits or Universal Credit]. Tax credits will be rolled up into Universal Credit over the next few years and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that this will lead to the majority of families losing out on childcare support, especially single parents.
At the same time, families who are being moved around the country due to housing benefits changes are losing access to family and other networks that many now rely on for childcare support. Moreover, though holiday childcare costs have stabilised after several years of significant increases, there is an increasing issue with the availability of holiday childcare, especially for children with special needs.
What is interesting from the Family and Childcare Trust’s annual report on holiday childcare is that there has been a drop in the number of parents complaining about lack of childcare – just 19% complained about lack of provision by their local authority. Why is that? Have they given up and realised they are basically on their own?
So what can be done? Shorter summer holidays? Sharing the holidays around over the year will not address the mismatch of parents’ to children’s holidays and many will resist attempts to reduce the overall number of weeks children get for holidays on the grounds that they – and their teachers – need regular rest periods, particularly in our increasingly intensive test- and target-based system.
The problem is that childcare in this country is still mainly seen as a private issue for parents to sort out. Hence the solution to high childcare costs is mainly tax credits and childcare vouchers which rely on individual parents claiming discounts [and many who are eligible still don’t] rather than the service itself being subsidised. But is good quality childcare and greater employment levels of women who want to work not a wider social good for a number of reasons, one of which is a demographic one: the fact that we need more of the young to work and pay their taxes to fund care and support for the growing number of elderly people?
While parents and local communities can band together – and are doing so – to look for their own solutions and there are some great employers around who are sympathetic to the challenges and offer support, what is needed is something that can be scaled nationally. A concerted effort is needed involving all those concerned: government both national and local, employers, charities and parents to find some sort of solution that works. There has been a massive change over the last decades. Women want and need to work these days. The holiday childcare dilemma – and the challenge of affordable, quality childcare in general – is not an issue that is going to go away any time soon.
*To check your entitlement to tax credits, go to www.turn2us.org.uk. They have an online benefits calculator.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.