As well as the end of most coronavirus restrictions, Monday 19 July marked the first day of the summer holidays for school children in the UK. It also, then, marked the first day of an impossible situation for many working parents: childcare.
Last week, the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) and the campaign group Mother Pukka published findings from a new survey looking to understand the depth of the childcare crisis in the country and its impact on working mothers.
The survey, which gathered responses from around 36,000 working mothers, found that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of those with primary school age children do not have sufficient childcare for the six-week school summer holidays. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the already dire situation is significantly worse for single mothers, for whom the proportion was 76 percent.
Childcare has been a topic of contention over the course of the pandemic. The most obvious example is the Free School Meals fiasco, a policy on which our government has U-turned time and time again over the last 18 months. Families of children who were eligible for free school meals were suddenly expected to feed their children while simultaneously taking time out of work to homeschool and entertain them.
But summer schools were—and in some cases still are—unavailable for many families, and easy access to willing friends and family members was taken away by coronavirus restrictions (for 20 percent of respondents to the TUC survey, this point still stands). And, of course, as the TUC poll suggests, working mothers were disproportionately impacted by the shift to homeschooling. A study from the London School of Economics, published in May, found that women were more likely to deal with homeschooling, childcare, and chores during the pandemic; 18 percent told the TUC that they had used all their annual leave allowance already to accommodate homeschooling during previous lockdowns.
Naturally, this means that many women will be forced to lose out financially in order to plug the gap left open by inaccessible childcare this summer. Around one in eight (13 percent) told the TUC that they will have to reduce their hours at work in order to do so, and the same number said they will have to take unpaid leave, begging the question—yet again—of how working-class and single women in particular will be able to afford to feed their children, and exposing the endless loop of impossible responsibility under a system that has consistently failed to account for them.
But pandemic-era summer holidays aren’t the only school holidays where single parents have been left scrambling for adequate support.
Cuts to council-run childcare in recent years has led to closures and, in turn, a reduction in access to affordable childcare. The number of council-funded Maintained Nursery Schools (MNS), which were set up over a century ago to provide care to the country’s most disadvantaged children, currently sits at 385, down from 600 in 1988. Closures are a direct result of chronic underfunding by the government, the National Education Union said, and just before the pandemic, research from the Department for Education (DfE) showed that the percentage of MNS in deficit had risen from 3.5 percent in 2009-10 to 20.8 percent in 2019-20.
Where affordable childcare isn’t available, for-profit childcare takes its place – at least for those who can afford it. Part-time childcare (around 25 hours) costs parents between £118 and £400 a week on average and can easily surpass £800 if they choose to go full-time, costing the average UK family around a third of their salary.
And, in 2017, analysis by TUC found that the cost of childcare for parents of one-year-olds had grown by 48 percent since 2008, despite wages falling. For many parents, this cost can mean it’s hardly worth working at all; for those in low-paid or precarious work, it’s devastating.
On top of that, access to what free childcare there is has hardly been adequate. David Cameron’s 30 hours’ free childcare policy, introduced in 2017 to provide quality childcare for the most disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds, simply does not make sense for working parents, not least because it excluded those under the age of three, but also because the amount of childcare (30 hours for 38 weeks a year) doesn’t match up to the number of hours full-time workers have to work: around 40 hours per week, with four weeks’ paid holiday.
The decimation of funding for childcare has also meant a lack of quality in affordable childcare, leaving parents to choose between going to work or ensuring adequate, high-quality care for their children.
A 2016 study by the Family and Childcare Trust (Fact) identified the cracks in the Conservative government’s main childcare policies. At the time, half of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds were losing out on quality early years education because they were receiving it in a setting not led by an early years graduate, a key quality indicator. This is tied to the fact that working conditions for nursery staff are often poor: a survey by the Social Mobility Commission last August found that one in eight childcare workers in the UK earns less than the minimum wage at £5 an hour, and that the average hourly wage in the sector is £7.42, despite parents forking out so much to afford it.
The TUC is calling for 10 days’ paid carer’s leave for all parents, a legal right to flexible work for all workers, and more funding for good-quality childcare to support the sector. The last of these is the most vital: government childcare policy needs to prioritise funding, so that rather than being framed as a matter of personal choice between earning enough and ensuring children receive adequate early years care, childcare can be provided properly as a a universal right.