Diary of a Sutton Councillor

A perspective on the childcare debate

Child psychologists tell us that the early years of a child’s life are the most crucial in terms of impacting on their future well-being, so it is imperative that we get this bit right. And it isn’t that complicated, apparently all that is required is for the child to be able to form a special bond with at least one person. That person needs to be loving, reliable and responsive to their needs. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a parent, and a bond can be formed with more than one person.

And this is why increasing the amount of children a single adult is responsible for in a nursery setting is concerning. As a parent I know it can be tough enough caring for one young child, when you have a baby and a toddler even more so. And it is much more difficult to comfort a child when you are not the main carer for that child, when you haven’t got that special bond, which makes it a tougher job still.

Currently the required ratio for under ones is 3 to one adult. Frankly I think this is already stretching it a bit if we expect some bond of trust to form between baby and carer, but I have seen it work over reasonable periods. I cannot see any good from increasing this ratio. Nor can I see increasing the number of toddlers that a single adult can have responsibility for in a pre-school setting having anything other than negative impacts on both the experience of the child and the stress-levels of the carers. The studies coming out of those European countries where childcare is common at greater child:carer ratios showing negative impacts on those children later in their lives is very worrying.

Yes it is important that childcare should be affordable, but quality costs. I never resented the cost of childcare because I wanted good quality people looking after my children in a safe and pleasant environment. Employee costs are always the major outgoing in a service industry, and we should demand high quality care at this important time in our children’s lives.

But there is more to this debate than just the cost of childcare. We must be very careful of the rhetoric around this debate. The discussion needs to be focussed on offering choice to parents, so that they can make a decision about whether to work and use childcare, or whether they want to be the main carer themselves in these early years, and how they fit that to their particular circumstances.

We need to be very careful not to undermine the choice of a parent not to work in order to be their child’s main carer. Whilst they may not be ‘economically productive’ whilst undertaking this role, they may instead be making a huge investment in the future economic productivity of their child by providing them with such a quality environment that it ensures they will become employable, active and involved citizens of the future. The few years taken out of employment to provide care in the early years is a small price when viewed in this way, and should apply equally to a lone parent as to a family with the luxury of two caregivers. A lone parent’s dependence on benefits for that period in order to give high quality care to their children may be a drop in the ocean compared to the costs to society of getting it wrong. We already see these impacts in young adults with inadequate education to be employable, who get involved in criminal activities or gangs as a result of negligible parental control or supervision, who become a permanent drain on the state.

Forcing or bullying parents into work, and offering cheap but poor quality childcare as the incentive (or removal of cost as an ‘excuse’) could exacerbate the very problem it is seeking to fix.

Then there is the other sensitivity, that we don’t make parents who work feel guilty for doing so, or for making use of childcare. And more often than not we are talking about mothers here, as sadly we are not yet at the stage where fathers are equally condemned for spending long periods at work away from their children and not being angst-ridden about it. As I said at the beginning of this post, it is not who the caregiver is, but the quality of that care that appears to matter most, and this role can be shared. Let us also not forget that for some parents there is no choice – they have to work to be able to meet their outgoings, and rely on whatever childcare is available via family, friends or paid care.

For me the key to this debate is choice. Yes making childcare more affordable will make it more widely available, and therefore more financially worthwhile for a parent to work. But we should also respect the choice of a parent to decide between providing that care themselves, and paying someone else to do it.

One reason that childcare works out so expensive is because that care often has to cover a full day’s work, plus travel time. So a parent working a 9-5 day will usually have to pay childcare from 8am to 6pm. And as we know in the UK 8-6 is often the minimum expected from an employer. Not only is this expensive but such long periods of time in a nursery setting is exhausting and possibly unhealthy for the child’s wellbeing. This is probably why so many women look to work part time or flexibly during the early years of their child’s life. But as we all know part time work usually pays less, so the choice sometimes comes down both to whether it is affordable, and whether the parent feels the need to work. Some parents feel they need to maintain their career progression, some to maintain their standard of living, others (me included) need the intellectual stimulation of work to keep them sane, and to make them better & more patient carers when with their children.

The biggest obstacle is the standard working week which does not sit well with enabling both parents to make choices about work and care-giving. The five-day, 9-5 model is based on the man being the income generator and the women the children’s caregiver and home-maker. Whilst we have been largely liberated from these narrow gender stereotypes, the economic modelling has not moved on at a similar pace. For me this is the great travesty as modern technology gives us the power for flexible working and breaking away from this outmoded working week concept. Many of us have drifted into this way of working, but the mind-set of office-based working remains. This is what makes the work/childcare issue so difficult – it is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

I am in the luxurious position of being one of two economically active adults in a household with children. My work can be done largely from a laptop anywhere, and I have the flexibility to arrange meetings around my children. My husband is self-employed which, along with technology, also allows him an amount of flexibility about hours and workplace. Together we can balance looking after our children with our working commitments, and when clashes occur we are fortunate to be able to call on family for additional childcare assistance.

And many families have found similar informal routes to achieving the balance that works for them. Many rely on relatives – often grandparents, to provide the high-quality but cost-effective childcare to enable them to work. Others find the one parent working, other homebased & main childcare provider suits them best. Others choose employment that has offers the working hours that work best for them, or that offer flexibility. These arrangements are decided upon and worked out by the families themselves, informally and innovatively, however not everyone has the same choices or range of options.

So my response to the childcare debate is that we should stop focussing on the issue from the narrow perspective of enabling both sexes to join the 9-5 rat race, and instead seek to encourage and enable more flexible ways of working and childcare. That could be through use of technology; through incentives for businesses to be more open-minded about their employment practices; via flexible maternity/paternity leave; and most importantly by accepting and valuing the contribution made by those who provide care for our children, whether that is the parent, a family member, or a remunerated carer.

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May 13, 2013 - Posted by | Opinion | ,

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