Childcare isn’t working

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We need an affordable and much simpler childcare support system, backed by employers, that helps all parents and carers into work

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Jane van Zyl: 'More flexible working is the other move that would really make a difference for working parents'

What do working parents and carers want most in the coming year? For many, the answer is affordable, appropriate and flexible childcare. For almost a quarter (23 per cent) of parents who took part in Working Families’ 2018 Modern Families Index, childcare affordability was a barrier to working. Mothers and fathers alike tell us that childcare considerations have a key bearing on their decision to take a new job.

The UK’s childcare support system is a tangled mess of schemes, each with differing objectives, and many of which have come about as the result of an arms race among political parties to have the most attractive offer for parents at General Election time. The result? Seven types of childcare support, each with different eligibility criteria and complex ways of interacting with one another.

So it’s refreshing that the Labour Party has acknowledged the need to invest in and, crucially, simplify the system. During his leader’s speech at the party’s conference last September, Jeremy Corbyn proposed to spend £4.8 billion to extend the 30 hours offer to parents who aren’t working, presumably to allow them the best chance of getting into work if that is best for their families. The proposal would extend the 15 hours offer to all two-year-olds, going up to 30 hours by the end of Labour’s first term.

It is ironic that while issues around availability and affordability often hold parents – especially women – back from fulfilling their potential in the labour market, 98 per cent of those who work in early years childcare are women, often on very low pay. As well as seeking to drive up training and skills among childcare staff, Labour is also focusing on improving their pay.

But there are a number of issues with Labour’s proposals, in particular how best to support parents of disabled children. Working Families’ 2018 report, Off Balance – Parents of disabled children and paid work, found that childcare is a major issue for parents of disabled children who work or want to work. Eighty-six per cent of parents who were out of work said finding suitable childcare was a significant barrier to working. Proposals to invest in training and requirements around the availability for SENCOs are therefore welcome.

It is also important that the proposals clearly incentivise providers to make childcare that is less widely used available, such as specialist childcare for disabled children and childcare during atypical hours, often crucial to those working shifts and often on lower pay. One concern with Labour’s proposals is that availability for these kinds of childcare may recede even further because providers may be unable to accept a Labour government’s hourly rate.

CHOICE AND COST

Eighty-two per cent of parents of disabled children who work or want to work say it is difficult or impossible to find suitable childcare provision that is affordable for them. In addition to making sure childcare for disabled children is available, it should also be affordable. Parents of disabled children should be able to take advantage of funded hours to get into and progress in work without finding themselves at a financial disadvantage because of the high cost of specialist childcare.

Labour’s proposals are focused on children aged two to four. However, parents’ need for affordable, available childcare does not stop when children start school. Breakfast, after-school and holiday childcare – particularly for disabled children – is in woefully short supply. While Labour’s proposals are a good start, parents of older children may wonder what’s in it for them.

Parents typically make decisions around work and care after maternity and parental leave. We have seen an increase in both parents working full time; fewer and fewer parents are able to consider one of them moving out of work after the birth of a child. We suggest the Labour Party consider and cost the introduction of a funded childcare hours allowance for children aged under two, which could be combined with additional paid parental leave, maximising choice for families.

The employer-supported childcare voucher scheme is now closed to new entrants. One of the brilliant things about the scheme was that it helped employers engage in conversations about family-friendly working practices, giving a formal mechanism for businesses to have conversations about supporting working parents around their childcare needs. Under Labour’s plans, there is no role for employers. We would like Labour to consider ensuring a role for employers in childcare provision as a mechanism for their engagement with parents on family-friendly working practices.

Finally, what must go hand in hand with a better and more comprehensive childcare system for the UK is a sufficient supply of good-quality, permanent part-time and flexible jobs. More flexible working is the other move that would really make a difference for working parents and carers. Together, these would help maximise parents’ choice around the amount of work that is right for them and their families, and the amount and timing of the childcare they use. Focusing on one without the other will leave childcare battling to accommodate an outdated and defunct nine-to-five, full-time, in-the-office model.

While 86 per cent of parents want to work flexibly, less than half actually do. The Government announced last October that it will consider creating a duty for employers to consider whether a job can be done flexibly, and make that clear when advertising.

Working Families believes this could be a game-changer that, combined with better childcare support, will give the UK’s parents the best chance of fulfilling their potential at work and at home. I hope Labour will join Working Families in supporting this bold government initiative and help make working parents’ wishes come true.

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