As the schools break up, children all over the country will be celebrating the start of a long summer holiday. For most of their parents however, work and other commitments carry on as normal, except now they have the additional task of finding childcare for the next six weeks.
Families deploy a range of different strategies: almost a quarter rely on informal childcare provided by friends and relatives; many parents resort to 'shift parenting' taking their annual leave separately and taking it in turns to look after their children; and some have flexible working arrangements, such as term-time only contracts. Some parents even end up giving up work in the holidays.
Over a fifth of families use holiday clubs or play schemes. As well as allowing parents to continue their ongoing commitments after the end of the school year - which might include working, looking for work, studying, training, or any additional caring responsibilities - holiday clubs provide a safe, child-centred environment where they can form friendships, take part in a range of activities, gain new skills and experiences, and be better prepared for the following year.
Holiday childcare is also essential for society and the economy. By allowing parents to continue employment, holiday childcare provides a reliable workforce for employers and can help narrow the gender pay and employment gap through enabling mothers to work. By offering a safe and stimulating environment for children of all backgrounds, holiday clubs can also support child development, helping to reduce social inequalities.
However, despite the importance of holiday childcare, many families are unable to find affordable places in their area.
This week saw the launch of the Holiday Childcare Survey 2016, an annual report from the Family and Childcare Trust that provides the most comprehensive analysis of holiday childcare costs and availability in Britain. The findings show that the average price of one week's full time holiday childcare is now £121.12 a week, and of those local authorities with enough data to assess whether supply meets demand, just 12% reported having sufficient holiday childcare in their area.
Though there are small improvements from last year, the long term trend is one of rising prices and growing shortages. Holiday childcare prices have risen by 21.9 per cent in the last six years, and shortages in provision have worsened rather than improved, with more than five million children now living in areas with insufficient childcare.
The survey also reveals that prices and shortages are worse for certain families. Parents of children aged 12 or over, families who live in rural areas, and those with disabled children face the biggest gaps in provision across Britain. Not one local authority in Wales or the East of England reported having sufficient childcare for any of the groups of children we asked about.
The importance of affordable local holiday childcare is now widely recognised. It is an essential part of the modern state's infrastructure, enabling parents to work and supporting children's development. There are some steps in the right direction with parents now being given the 'right to request' holiday childcare at schools from September, which has the potential to help with shortages.
However, the findings of this research clearly indicates that there is still much more that needs to be done. Access to childcare should be a right for all families, just like a school place. The Government needs to act to prioritise holiday childcare by strengthening the duty on local authorities to make sure there is enough childcare in their local areas. There is also a need for a fresh look at how to make it easier for parents to find out about holiday childcare in their area, and there is an opportunity to think creatively about working with schools, police commissioners, schools, leisure, arts and sports organisations to increase the number and variety of holiday activities.
Action is urgently needed to support this vital component of our country's infrastructure, and help all families look forward to the school holidays.