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Childcare: an issue for primary age children too

February 5, 2016

There’s something missing in the current childcare debate.

The Scottish Government recently issued a discussion paper on the planned move from the present commitment of 600 hours of childcare for 3 and 4 year olds, and some 2 year olds, to 1140 hours (30 hours per week in term time or 24 or so spread over a working year) – in effect, slightly longer than children spend in primary school.

The document argues strongly for the benefit to children of good quality (that’s an important proviso) childcare but also notes:

provision of subsidised early learning and childcare increases female labour force participation

Where subsidised childcare removes barriers to employment it can help lift families out of poverty and help parents gain further skills, enhancing their employability and future earnings.

But there’s almost complete silence on what happens when that child reaches 5 (or indeed 4 and two-thirds in some cases). The SG’s Poverty Adviser recently recommended that the SG  (emphasis added) “consider providing a limited number of free hours of childcare for primary school aged children” – but that appears to be about it. The last big SG policy document on out of school care that turns up on a search dates from 2003. The Early Years Task Force was asked to look at out of school care in November 2013  – but I can’t readily find its conclusions (I’ll post them here, if anyone can point me to them). It’s not clear that any official data is collected on the availability nationally of out of school care (again, happy to post here any that readers can identify).

The typical P1 and P2 school day round our way starts at 8.50 (or a touch later if the line doesn’t go in straight away) and finishes at 2.45 on Thursday and 12.15 on Friday.  For 13 weeks of the year school is closed. From P3, the school day finishes half an hour later (15 minutes on Friday).

There are some very forgiving employers out there, but I doubt the number of careers open to those available only from around 9.30  to 2, or even 2.30, Monday to Thursday, for only 39 weeks of the year, is very high.

Yet access to the things which would really help women work – school-based breakfast clubs, after school clubs and holiday clubs – is not guaranteed (our local school has all these things – but even here for the breakfast club there’s a long waiting list).  Further, barely debated and invisible in any form of separately funded  national strategy comparable to what’s done for pre-school children (or any national strategy at all?), any local subsidies for such arrangements, where they exist, must be vulnerable in the face of budget cuts over the next few years. The argument here is not about providing lots of free hours across the board.  It’s more basic.  It’s about providing any sort of service at all – for most possible users, it just needs to be there, and affordably priced.

Even before the extra pre-school hours,  as the funding for early years care is often given flexibly (depending on your council?), parents using private nurseries and who can manage, however marginally, to pay for extra hours already often report that childcare only becomes a real headache when their child starts school.  Until then, they have usually had access to a provider who is open all year round from 8 till 6, making several full days in an ordinary year-round job manageable.  Embedding even larger numbers of free hours in more flexible arrangements features strongly in the recent SG discussion paper.

Thus, the trajectory which will feel most right to many parents – go back gradually if at all when they are still quite little, but build hours up as they become more independent – is the opposite of what the state enables.

There may be a few who wave their 6 year old off to school at 8.15 with a key and a cheerful “I’ll be home at 6”, and deploy the home alone gambit for a quarter of the year (Named Persons look away now). But the reality for many is years of knife-edge schedule juggling with partners, grandparents or neighbours (if those are available) and employers, and/or deferred or limited working.  I’m not suggesting the state should wave a magic wand – but the increasingly intense focus on early years and the policy gap for older children is having the strange effect of making it easier for mothers, in particular, to take on substantial work when their children can barely talk, but not when they are half way to high school. That feels back to front.

Yet, ironically, wrap around care for school age children is much cheaper to provide than care for 2 or 3 year olds.  Lower staff:child ratios and existing (and otherwise often unused) school buildings mean that for the cost of giving a 2 year old one extra hour we could give several 6 or 7 years olds an extra hour after school.

Part of the issue here is the double-edged purpose of childcare policy.  Is it about what’s good for supporting women’s re-entry into the labour market or is it about child development? Both of course, but there needs to be a recognition that while the two can be the same, they aren’t identical.  And that when one aim – child development – is taken over by the school system, the other shouldn’t suddenly be forgotten.

It’s also important not to get too carried away with the philosophy underpinning the recent discussion paper. While some children evidently thrive in group care from 2 (or younger) and all will probably benefit from time with others as they approach school age, long hours in such settings are not for every child or every family – for some people, looking after their child at home in the early years is very important, and the choice to do that should be valued too. That’s not the message when childcare policy focusses so entirely on ever longer hours for pre-schoolers,  however.

As the election approaches, the chance of a nuanced, rounded debate doesn’t look good. Nursery hours, like teacher and police numbers, is becoming a totem issue. We might get as far as a debate about whether what’s promised will be deliverable – but the chance of a discussion about what sort of childcare it really takes to support mothers (and some fathers) back into work feels far off.

 

Footnote:

Declaration of non-interest. As a freelancer,  I’ve been able to be at the school gate more than many.  The piece above comes from many conversations with other mothers (mainly, but also some fathers) – often while waiting for the bell – whose concerns aren’t well reflected in the public debate.

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