The ever-emotive topic of childcare is hitting the headlines again, after Audit Scotland expressed concerns about the Scottish Government’s pledge to almost double the hours of free childcare available to three and four year olds, and vulnerable two year olds, by 2020.
As a working parent, at first glance it’s hard to see what’s not to like about the First Minister’s promise to increase free provision from 16 hours a week to 30. However, auditors have flagged up a host of potential issues, including infrastructure, the recruitment of the thousands of additional staff that will be needed to deliver this, and the considerable gap between what the Scottish Government think their flagship policy will cost, and what councils anticipate the bill will be (hint: it’s considerably higher).
Logistical and financial arguments aside, in principle the Scottish Government’s plans should be welcomed not just by working parents, but by businesses too, who can only benefit if more parents can re-enter the workplace. However, for the policy to have any effect on this front, the new system must be more flexible than the current one.
Research from campaign group Fair Funding for our Kids shows nine out of ten parents who want to change their working situation say lack of appropriate childcare is their main barrier. Most council nurseries only offer free childcare in slots of 3 hours 10 minutes during term time, with no option for parents to buy extra hours for the rest of the day. Only one in ten council nurseries opens from 8am-6pm. This is obviously an unusable system for many working families.
I count myself among the luckiest parents in Scotland, because I work from home three days a week, with the other two spent in the office. On home-based days, I am able to drop my four-year-old off at a council nursery at 8.45am and still make it to my desk by 9am. I have family nearby who pick my son up from his free morning session at lunchtime and look after him for the afternoon.
Those not as fortunate as myself are left with the option of using a private nursery which offers longer hours. However, UK parents currently face some of the highest childcare costs in the western world. By the time families have two pre-school children, it’s not just the low-paid who don’t have much money left to take home by the time they have paid their nursery bills. Some funded places are available at private nurseries in partnership with their council, but in many cases, these are limited. Because of this, many working parents are missing out on their free entitlement altogether.
The situation does not improve much when children get to school. Without adequate provision of pre-school or after-school care, many parents face a logistical nightmare to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs. Incredibly, I am aware of at least one council which is currently considering axing breakfast clubs – a guaranteed meal for our most vulnerable children, but also a godsend for working parents – from its primary schools to save money. How this fits with their aspiration of lifting more families out of poverty is anyone’s guess.
The childcare conundrum disproportionately affects women, as more than three quarters of mothers shoulder the primary caring responsibility. Women are the ones, therefore, who are most likely to drop out of the workforce altogether – fine if they can afford to and want to, but many can’t or don’t. Women are also more likely to work fewer hours than they would like to, or settle for less challenging jobs. This means businesses are missing out on huge pools of female talent that could potentially address the skills shortages faced by some sectors, such as construction, science and technology.
So until the extended hours of free childcare come into place, what does this mean for business? Quite simply, companies who offer flexible hours or home working will be the winners when it comes to attracting talent. Working parents, after all, can often be some of the most focused, motivated and productive employees you are likely to meet.
Of course, enlightened employers such as mine already recognise that greater flexibility isn’t just appreciated by parents – and they will already be reaping the benefits of a happier, healthier workforce.