Mixed priorities


Our political parties need to put children, families and ‘life-long learning’ back at the centre of childcare policy

Michael Pettavel
Michael Pettavel

Political parties are tripping up over each other making wild offers to parents about free state-funded childcare. Maybe it will start when children are one, or perhaps two? It will be universal, parents will pay nothing and, of course, it will be expected to be open whenever and wherever people want. Call me a cynic, but I rarely believe absolutes. I know these are vote-winners and as children can’t vote, their needs aren’t considered.

Childcare is not simply for parents. Childcare is, in fact, about children. If children and their specific needs are not in the centre of the frame when you are deciding policy, your policy will be wrong. We are not providing boarding kennels for children; we are using every resource (within our depleted means) to make the experience for children as valuable as possible.

When seen in a linear way, childcare moves away from education and becomes about ‘preparation’: preparation for school, with school, in turn, becoming preparation for work and round it goes. Would it not be better if we thought about ‘life-long learning’ (like we used to) and preparation for life? Sociologically this must make sense.

Families are so securely stuck in the middle – on one side held hostage, needing to work to provide, and then criticised for not being available to their child on the other (not everyone can just step down like Nicky Morgan). New parents return to work within a system that offers poor maternity and paternity rights, rising costs of living and a bonkers Universal Credit system that creates ever-increasing lines outside food banks.

Of course, the ‘obvious’ answer to this is to get parents into work by making childcare more ‘affordable’ (paying the providers very little), but what is the longer impact of this on parenthood and childhood?

We know, from research, that well-qualified, valued and properly paid staff have an impact on children’s experience. We also know that giving parents some flexibility in their working life when their children are young makes a difference.

So, I struggle to understand why the policy is always focused on the childcare sector and not on employers. If parents are to have a choice, shouldn’t it be a real one? Every parent knows the panic when you have to collect a sick child and explain to your boss that you may not be in work for a couple of days.

If we are going to have a policy for childcare – please let’s put children and family life at the centre of it.

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