Choosing childcare

It's good that childcare is on the political agenda – but what does the government mean by choice?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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I have a five-month-old baby who I adore, a job that I’m itching to get back to, and I live in London. So, of course, I’m delighted that the UK government has now released a 10-year strategy for childcare (1). For far too long, childcare has been absent from the political agenda, leaving working parents on their own to juggle the demands of their job and the limitations of the scarce, expensive, inflexible daycare currently on offer. A proper discussion about how parents can be enabled to engage fully in the world of work while also raising their families is long overdue.

And the government’s strategy has much to recommend it. It talks of giving parents more choice, more control and more flexibility – aspirations that I fully support. It contains some imaginative proposals, from transferring maternity leave between parents to expanding the system of after-school clubs, enabling parents to work more easily around the school day. There is a recognition that the world has changed: women have careers, fathers are more involved with their children, and people do not just have children – they make a conscious decision to do so, which involves a heavy emotional investment.

But one thing bothers me about this childcare strategy, with its emphasis on choice. Where exactly is the childcare, and what exactly is the choice?

One of the most widely heralded goals in the childcare strategy is to increase statutory maternity pay from six months to one year, and to make it possible for mothers and fathers to ‘share’ the leave between themselves. One argument for this, as the strategy puts it, is that ‘many parents would like more time with their children when they are very young’, and are prevented from doing this by the current arrangements, which mean that statutory pay runs out after six months and only relates to leave taken by the mother.

It is true that many working people want to spend more time with their young children, and that some would appreciate a longer period of maternity leave. But is this the full story? Many women already do not take the full six months of maternity leave – partly because they cannot afford to (at around £100 a week, statutory maternity pay is still a pretty paltry sum, and a lot less than many people would be earning at full salary), and partly because they do not want to be away from their job for so long. This is not because they don’t love their children, or don’t want to spend ‘more time’ with them – it’s because they do not want to leave a gaping six-month hole in their career, and have frankly had enough of days filled with nappies and nursery rhymes.

Fathers, meanwhile, may well involve themselves with their children more than their own fathers did, feeding and changing and bathing them; but there is a big leap from this to spending several months caring for the baby day in, day out. For those fathers who do want to take the ‘maternity leave’ option, it’s great that they will have the choice. But there are many good reasons why fathers might not want to choose the full-on domestic route.

The government’s emphasis on choice implies that a variety of parental decisions about maternity leave / paternity leave / daycare / nannies, made in the first year of their child’s life, will be supported and recognised as valid. However, it makes clear that this is not really the case. ‘The evidence confirms the value of consistent one-to-one care in the first year of a child’s life’, states the document – a point it reiterates several times. Furthermore, ‘In the early months there are health reasons, such as breastfeeding, that argue for a mother offering the best care’. ‘A number of studies’ suggest that mothers who work full-time when their babies are very young ‘can have some small negative effects on the development of some children’ – but that these can be avoided ‘by high quality care from others and by an increased involvement of fathers.’

Before you know it, the childcare strategy has gone from lauding parental choice and flexibility to a highly prescriptive recommendation: that a parent (or, if absolutely necessary, a nanny) should care for a baby for the first year of life, and that it should be the mother who does this for the first six months. To that end, the childcare strategy makes no recommendations about expanding full-time childcare for babies (the time when nursery provision is the most scarce and expensive). Maternity leave is as good as it gets; and if you decide not to go down that route, the clear implication is that your child will suffer for it.

The tension between the government’s desire to promote parental choice and its compulsion to prescribe what these choices should be runs through the document. Consistently referring back to ‘the evidence’ that policymakers have gathered about child development, the childcare strategy means that parents should stay at home for the first year, do flexible working for the years from age one to three, so that they can afford to put their child in top-notch officially approved daycare (or with a nanny), and start hot-housing the kids from age three. Or, in its own words:

‘More specifically the evidence suggests that:

  • for the first year of a child’s life the priority should be to create conditions that support consistent one-to-one care;
  • for children aged one to three the priority for childcare must be high quality provision for those who choose to use it; and
  • for children aged three and above regular participation in high quality group childcare can have a positive effect on cognitive, social and emotional development, and help support higher educational attainment in school.’

And deviating from this path is likely to be frowned upon. For while the government is clearly very keen on mothers staying home with the baby for (at least) six months, it is troubled by the idea that they might stay home for much longer than a year. This is partly because ‘evidence suggests’ that young children benefit from being in groups of kids and learning things – and who trusts parents to provide this all-important early-years intellectual boost? Never mind that the evidence about the importance of this or that social or educational interaction for young children’s development, whether it be one-to-one care or a morning at a nursery run by somebody with a PhD in child psychology, is contentious at best (see The myth of infant determinism, by Helene Guldberg).

More disturbingly, the government’s interest in getting mothers back to work after the first year is also motivated by concerns about the financial implications for the family, particularly for low-earning women, for whom giving up a job to raise a child is financially more palatable, and the impact of this upon the child. Why? Because ‘evidence suggests that parents living in poverty are likely to face risk factors that make their role as parents harder, such as lack of material goods like toys and books, lack of space for play and school work, as well as a greater vulnerability to depression and anxiety’. Maybe I missed something, but since when was living in a small flat with limited toys a ‘risk factor’ for children?

The trouble with the government’s childcare strategy, it seems to me, is that it has employed both too much imagination, and too little. The range of imaginative solutions it has come up with to help people balance work and family life, from maternity/paternity leave to flexible working to different styles of nursery care to suit different ages of children, have had the effect of complicating what is, in fact, a straightforward practical problem – childcare. If women are to play a full role in the labour market, what they need is somebody to look after their children. Not to love their children (that is the role of parents), or to educate their children (that is the role of schools), but to feed them, clear up after them, wipe their bottoms and make sure they don’t get hurt. Childcare isn’t rocket science, but that doesn’t make it any less crucial in a civilised, equal society.

Unfortunately, the government is in danger of turning childcare into rocket science. The ‘joined up’ thinking behind the childcare strategy effectively means attempting to use childcare as a means of achieving several social and political ends – ensuring that women work (but not so hard that they work full-time) and that they breastfeed too, that men develop their nurturing role, that the state can play an intimate role in the educational and emotional development of every child, and that childcare is professionalised to the point where it is on a par with teaching. The likely result of this is a labyrinth of intricate employment and childcare arrangements that families may find harder to juggle, not easier.

Where the government seems sorely lacking in imagination is in empathising with the reality of families’ lives, and the choices that people make. Its obsession with the (highly selective) ‘evidence base’ on child development must read very strangely to anybody getting on with the business of raising a family. If ‘one-to-one’ care is better for a newborn, what happens in families when people have two children or, God forbid, three?

Extended maternity leave is supposed to be a good thing because people want to spend more time with their baby – but this romanticised view neatly avoids the fact that much of babycare is not quality-time cuddling, but the kind of relentless, boring and often unrewarding domestic chores that make many women desperate to get back to work. By a similar token, the drive to increase parental trust in childcare by ratcheting up nursery workers’ qualifications seems somewhat perverse. You don’t need a degree to look after a child – and why would parents want somebody with a degree to care for their baby? What we want is somebody who loves working with children, and has the kind of skill and patience for this work that we often lack. It is not in the government’s gift to ensure that parents trust the nursery workers by giving them certificates.

Flexible working is hailed as the ideal solution for people who want to pursue their careers and spend time with their families – but we all know that a four-day week isn’t the same as a full working week, and that in many professional jobs even leaving at 5pm to get back to the nursery is considered the mark of a part-timer – certainly of somebody who lacks commitment. ‘[A]s everyone acknowledges, babes in 40-hour nursery care is a nightmare option’, states the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting glibly (2). Yet 40 hours a week is five days working 9 to 5, allowing no time even for travelling from the nursery to work. What is being said here – that women and their partners who want to develop a properly full-time career while raising a family are somehow guilty of neglect?

‘Parents are the best judges of their family’s needs,’ states the childcare strategy. In a speech to the Daycare Trust a month ago, prime minister Tony Blair emphasised his desire to give families ‘real choices not false choices’ (3). But if this really were the case, wouldn’t the government put rather less effort and imagination into trying to get parents to make what it believes to be the right choices, and rather more into providing some decent, affordable daycare that parents can access when they want to, and only if they want to?

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) Choice for parents, the best start for children: a ten year strategy for childcare, HM Treasury, December 2004

(2) Something has to give, Guardian, 6 December 2004

(3) Full text: Tony Blair’s speech on childcare, Guardian, 11 November 2004

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Topics Politics


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