THE BLOG

Childcare Is a Family Issue, Not a Female One

22/09/2015 10:57 BST | Updated 21/09/2016 10:12 BST

The latest employment statistics released last week show little movement since the last ones. What is noteworthy though is that with each publication of the figures, the Office for National Statistics announces that the number of women in the workforce is at its highest level.

This is for a number of reasons, including a rise in the pension age for women. But one of the main ones is the number of women now working, increasingly full time, after having children.

The number of mums now working is up by a fifth since the 1990s and the figures for those working full time have increased to around a third, up from less than a quarter in the mid-90s. This has also meant a huge focus on childcare for working families.

Childcare got a lot of attention in the general election, but most of that has been on early years childcare. The government initiative which has been most widely covered is the extension of free childcare to three and four year olds. Fortunately or unfortunately, children do not stay three and four for long. The government has also promised a tax-free childcare scheme whereby parents pay into an online account and the government tops up 20% of the costs up to a maximum £2,000 per child per year.

Both these plans are due to come in in the next two years - well after the cuts in tax credits take effect. Workingmums.co.uk's annual survey shows half of mums do not believe the initiatives will help them. This could partly be because they don't fully understand them, particularly the tax-free scheme, and how they would work for school-aged childcare, especially holiday childcare, where there is a rather large shortfall in available places with registered childcare providers.

Some 57% of working mums say after-school and holiday childcare is something they struggle with. Many have more than one child in primary school and the lack of affordable childcare means they often have to patch holiday childcare together at the last minute. The Family and Childcare Trust holiday childcare survey shows 87% of English and 95% of Welsh local authorities questioned this year admitted that they did not have adequate provision to meet the demand from parents.

Another big issue in an increasingly 24/7 culture is the lack of flexible childcare. Some 41% of the 2,300 mums surveyed said the childcare available to them was not flexible enough for their needs. This is likely to include self-employed people and those working shifts, starting work early or working late.

The Family and Childcare Trust's latest Childcare and Work report shows that 23% of British mothers who are not in paid employment cite childcare issues as the main reason they are unable to enter the job market.

It calls on employers to do more to help parents with childcare, for instance, by offering more flexible work or their own childcare support schemes, such as subsidised creches.

Employers may possibly balk at being asked to do more when the economic recovery is still by no means assured and global events look increasingly unstable. But in the absence of more than tinkering at the edges of the childcare issue from government - creating a new scheme while taking money away from those on lower incomes; extending free hours at nursery without spelling out where the money is coming for childcare providers to afford them - this is a problem which is only going to get worse due to the growing financial pressures on families. A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report found that both parents in low income families are going to have to work full time if they are to climb out of poverty. That means a greater demand for affordable childcare.

It's not just about mums - so often childcare is seen only as a female issue, but it's an issue - or will be - for most of us. Most employees have or will have a family. It's sound business policy to take that into account and it's good long-term political thinking to find ways to make work work while also balancing the need to support families bringing up the next generation.