Left holding the baby?

The start of a discussion on childcare……

There have been a number of discussions taking place recently around childcare in the UK and the role it can play in supporting female employment and economic recovery. The role of childcare in childhood and child development is the subject of less public discussion which, I would argue, is unfortunate. The cost of childcare is a concern to parents, politicians and policy-makers alike and a recent Panorama programme highlighted ‘The Cost of Raising Britain’. Women’s employment issues have also been highlighted recently with a number of shocking statistics showing that women are bearing the brunt of the job losses that have been announced to date.

It is against this backdrop that a number of reports have recently been published which have explored different ways that childcare provision (mainly affordability and accessibility) in the UK could be improved and women could be ‘freed up’ to return to the labour market.  The Social Market Foundation, IPPR and The Resolution Foundation have all recently published reports that make the economic case for improving access to childcare and improving women’s employment. All three ‘think-tanks’ that produced the reports are usually primarily concerned with economic issues and it is through this prism that they advocate the case for improving the provision of childcare. They advocate different approaches to doing this and all are excellent contributions to discussions about female and, more specifically, maternal employment concerns.

However, it is disappointing that there is no substantial counter-narrative or alternative view to this perspective. No ‘think-tanks’, to the best of my knowledge have come out with a proposal to support mothers wanting to stay at home with their children (although The Daily Mail has suggested this needs to be done). Nobody has expressed concern at the way stay at home mothers are portrayed as being some kind of economic liability and/or selfish. The press release for one of the reports stated that by removing some of the barriers to childcare, this innovative scheme can help parents do what’s best for themselves and their children. What does it tell us about our approach to raising our children when it is inferred that the best thing for both parent and child is to be separated early on so that the parent can get back to work and the child can receive a more ‘stimulating’ upbringing?

Another of the reports notes that 55% of UK mothers in couple’s families already work part time and that this:

‘high level of female part-time work in the UK therefore means that an unusually large portion of the prize of higher UK female employment income lies in the potential for working women to increase their hours’. (my emphasis)

 So not only should women go back to work, but those already in employment should also considering working longer hours?

The reports tend to present childcare as a universal good and don’t really touch on any inconsistency of the quality of available childcare. Whilst there is some good evidence that at the right age and in the right quantity, childcare can help to provide positive outcomes for children, this ground is very contested and there are also competing views about outcomes for children placed in childcare for long hours at an early age. Back in 2004, it was reported that:

The government is reconsidering its strategy on childcare in the face of mounting evidence that day nurseries for children under two can lead to increased incidence of antisocial behaviour and aggression. Ministers also fear a public backlash against putting pressure on mothers to get back to work…

Recent policy decisions in this area seem ambiguous. The withdrawal of child benefit from higher rate taxpayers potentially disadvantages stay at home mums, but it has been suggested that Universal Credit favours a ‘single earner’ model of household income and tax-breaks have been mooted for working parents who employ domestic staff. We have highlighted the implications of a broad range of policies in other posts on this blog, such as ‘Maternal Poverty in the Age of Austerity’ and ‘Women and Children Last?’

The discussion of social and emotional issues in primarily economic terms is nothing new of course. I am always disappointed, for example, to see immigration discussed almost exclusively in terms of positive impact on the economy on one side or the amount of jobs taken by foreign nationals on the other, and the recent discussions about the Welfare Reform and Health and Social Care bills are often couched in terms of economic necessity or efficiency rather than care and security.

The lack of a strong alternative voice to the economic narrative (more than the focus of the reports themselves) is, it could be argued, a good example of a wider malaise about how we view childhood in the country. International comparisons suggest that children’s well-being in the UK does not compare favourably with children in other countries, we have been criticised for our approach to children’s rights and I would suggest that we see childhood not as an important stage in its own right but merely as a ‘base camp’ in preparation for adulthood. Witness the primacy of the social mobility agenda over the child poverty agenda and the introduction of measures relating to ‘children’s life chances’ as examples of this view. Young people, often described in deficit models such as NEETS, are seen as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

In summing up, I’d like to absolutely clarify that I am not ‘against’ women working, but nor am I ‘for’ women staying at home and I am not advocating for either position here. What I am advocating for is a more balanced narrative about childcare and parental employment and the role of children in our society which doesn’t prescribe or imply certain roles for women and mothers and which does not disadvantage parents who wish to stay at home. We haven’t even touched on the role of fathers in this discussion.

Children, in the longer term, are essential for economic growth, if that is you’re interested in but, in the short term, they are often viewed as getting in the way of people, usually women, working. It could be argued that they are, therefore, viewed primarily as a drain on the state. As for women, at the moment, it appears that they have to choose between helping their country out of a desperate economic situation and rearing their children themselves. All at a time when female unemployment stands at its highest level for 25 years…..

As ever, we’d be interested in people’s thoughts on this.

Best wishes,

Steve

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