Esther Townsend looks at the realities of childcare.
It’s impossible to discuss women’s general experience of work without considering childcare. In England in 2011 78% of families with children under 15 used some form of childcare, ranging from nurseries and pre-schools; childminders; breakfast and after school clubs; to holiday care — we can’t live and work without it.
But for many families these arrangements aren’t working. In the last year childcare costs have soared by 19% in the UK. This is part of a longer term trend. The Family and Childcare Trust have reported the cost of childcare has increased by 77% over the past decade while wages have been stagnant in real terms. Childcare costs are named as the biggest single obstacle to working, or working more, by over 40% of mothers. 37% of mothers who don’t work would like to and 20% of mothers who do would like to take on additional hours but can’t because it doesn’t add up financially. Women are also leaving work due to the combination of costs and cuts in child tax credit and child benefit — in 2012 24% of mothers left employment and 16% reduced their hours to care for their children.
Until the late 1990s childcare was largely seen as a private matter and government investment and public provision were limited and patchy. People relied on informal networks and reciprocal arrangements to get by. From 1998 formal childcare began to be more affordable and available, with the development of Sure Start children’s centres, free entitlements and government subsidies.
In theory this was strengthened by the Childcare Act 2006 which obligated local authorities to provide sufficient childcare for working parents. In reality? Over 400 Sure Start centres were shut in the first two years of the Coalition government, with over half of those left no longer providing any onsite childcare. There are soaring costs; and a lack of flexibility. Only 20% of local authorities in England and 25% in Wales provide enough childcare for children aged two and under. There are also major gaps for older children, those with complex needs or parents who have shift or irregular work patterns. The Family and Childcare Trust argue these gaps have widened in the last 12 months.
Increasingly families are relying on informal support again — 26% ask grandparents to help, 4% older siblings, 5% other relatives and 7% call on friends and neighbours, with many also using unregulated childminders and nurseries. Informal childcare does offer benefits — aside from economic savings it strengthens social ties and allows children to be cared for by people they know, often in their own homes. But the other side of the coin is complicated and unstable arrangements — the lower your income the more complicated your childcare arrangements will be. Questions are also raised about safety and child educational development.
More research is also needed into how it affects the carers. For example, very little is known about young carers (15-24 year-olds) but it’s hard to see how caring for a younger sibling won’t have an impact on educational attainment and social development. Research from the Office of National Statistics suggests informal childcare adds up to 90 billion hours every year — that’s 90 billion hours of unpaid and unrecognised work!
This touches on the attitudes and debates underlying all of this around women’s employment, domestic labour and motherhood. Childcare is a “labour of love” — what kind of woman wants recognition and remuneration for a task she undertakes out of love? If you do what you love, it’s not work — right? On the scale of domestic drudgery most people would probably say raising children is the most rewarding. But it’s difficult and challenging work — like many jobs that are absolutely essential and valuable to capital (including much of the other work undertaken largely by women in the home), it is undervalued by capital and wider society. If the challenges of childcare are acknowledged there’s a general feeling that people shouldn’t complain because they “chose” it.
Childcare is set to be one of the major battlegrounds in the 2015 general election. With half of all parents saying the government isn’t doing enough to support them with childcare the major parties are already laying out proposals. From autumn 2015 the Tories plan extra support through a tax-free voucher system allowing parents to claim up to £1,200 towards childcare costs. This should eventually be open to 2.5 million families with two children. Sounds good until you look into the detail — both parents must be working, and it’s weighted towards better off families not those on lower incomes. It’s basically a bid to reclaim any middle class voters the Tories may have lost by cutting child benefit.
Labour plans to increase entitlement with shadow Chancellor Ed Balls announcing at their conference last year plans to raise taxes on banks to find 25 hours of free childcare for three and four year olds. They’re also promising “wraparound” childcare for primary school age children, meaning schools (or private providers) will offer 8am – 6pm opening hours around normal school times. But will this really make childcare affordable? With the current 15 hour entitlement many parents have to pay top-ups as nurseries impose minimum time slots to make up for the fact government subsidies don’t cover the full cost of the childcare places.
Against these proposals the labour movement needs to be arguing, and fighting, for free, flexible and high quality childcare, organised around parents work patterns. And work organised around workers’ child and other caring responsibilities. That is the only way to give women, all parents and children real choices.