I am perfectly sober as I write this, but I have the feeling that it’s going to turn into the kind of “and another thing!” rant that I normally subside into at the end of an evening, elbows on table, chin slumped on the palm of one hand while the forefinger of the other wags wildly and with distinct lack of focus. Not unlike the rest of this blog, then.
It’s the season of party conferences, which means that we’ll be whittled down into our constituent groups and targeted furiously. One of those groups to which I belong (though strangely there doesn’t seem to be a counterpart for my husband) is “female voters”.
This isn’t an attack on Labour and certainly not one on Gloria De Piero. But my heart sank when I saw this tweet yesterday, and it fell to the floor when my fears were realised and the very first part of the interview this morning launched straight into “childcare”.
It’s becoming such a Pavlovian response that I made the association even without wanting to. No wonder poor politicians, coached in appealing to their target demographic, have the same response when addressing women. On several different levels, though, it is exasperating.
Childcare shouldn’t be a woman’s issue. Not all women have children, not all women ever will. To rank it as primary concern among female voters is lazy and offensive.
Childcare shouldn’t be a mother’s issue. It should be an issue for all parents, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, should be taken to apply equally to fathers as to mothers. Perhaps the reality is that dads don’t take as great an interest as their current or ex-partners, in which case perhaps not repeatedly telling them that it’s not their problem anyway might help with that.
Childcare shouldn’t be a parent’s issue. People who have children also have jobs, health conditions and other caring responsibilities. Wouldn’t it be nice if we, as a society, saw it as something integral to life as a whole, not some awkward inconvenience to be managed by those afflicted?
Childcare shouldn’t be a grandparent’s issue. Many grandparents are able and willing and feel privileged to be in a position to support their own children by looking after their offspring when they come along. Many can’t. Many don’t want to, or do so at considerable cost to themselves, but feel that they have no choice. Those who do should be recognised, and, where necessary, compensated, but their contribution should not be taken for granted.
Childcare shouldn’t be an employer’s issue. Or rather it should be, at a macro level. We need to stop talking about solving the “problem” of working parents (mothers). Provision of childcare so that parents can work should be less about providing facilities open for long hours year-round so that workplaces aren’t disrupted by pick-ups and holidays, and more about listening to what is really needed. What message does it send when family-friendly legislation is introduced to support working parents, but recourse to employment tribunals in the event of non-compliance is made unaffordable for most?
Childcare shouldn’t be a school’s issue. Schools are there to educate children, not to stable them. By all means encourage and support schools to have breakfast and homework clubs and to offer their facilities to providers who can run affordable programmes through the holidays. Just don’t talk about extending the actual school day “to help working parents” with a side order of raising standards without answering our concerns about what that might mean for our children.
Childcare shouldn’t be an early years’ issue. The 15 hours of entitlement offered for 3 year olds was an important step forward. My own children have thrived in the excellent preschool settings they’ve been lucky enough to attend. Those settings aren’t appropriate for ten-hour days, though, and neither the curriculum, the staff, nor – most importantly – the children would benefit from pretending that they were. Although I welcome the extension of the scheme to some two year olds, I wish that there could be more discretion as to the “need” of families who qualify, because disadvantage is not necessarily financial – and some reassurance that they are not to be added into existing settings aimed at older preschoolers without proper resources. When politicians talk of extending the early years’ entitlement and call it “childcare” I worry: will the offer come to depend on a parent’s employment or financial circumstances? If it is beneficial to a child to have this (and I’m persuaded that, generally, it is) it should only ever by the child’s needs which are considered.
Childcare should be a child’s issue. You don’t need to believe that the only place for children is at home with their parents (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t) to want a debate on children’s best interests and how they are served. Accepting that good childcare can be hugely beneficial, and accepting that it is vital for a majority of families, does not mean losing sight of what children need.
Politicians shoot for childcare because parents reply consistently that it is their priority. The cost of childcare in Britain is astronomically higher than elsewhere in Europe, and we simultaneously hear of women being excluded from employment because it is unaffordable and of women who have no financial option but to work. There is an obvious mismatch, though, between comparatively affluent policy makers who have both choice and access to a range of high quality childcare provision, and women at the bottom end of society coerced into long and/or antisocial hours and told that a place in some nursery or scheme is the answer to any possible problems that might pose.
Cost is hugely important, but so too are quality, flexibility and choice. If politicians want parents – go on then, mums – to take them seriously, they absolutely do need to commit to subsidising proper, age-appropriate, well-regulated childcare that allows us to work knowing that our children are safe and happy. But they also need to make us feel secure in our family lives, and in asking for our rights at work. All the nurseries and wraparound schemes in the world are of little use when a child is ill or in trouble or there’s no-one there at closing time because you got asked to stay on and felt you couldn’t refuse.
So, politicians, listen to what parents say they want, and why. We have to be creative. Can you?