We had a fire alarm in the Gingerbread offices this week - and the well-practised drill had us all outside within minutes before we got the all-clear to go back inside. There is a nursery in our building, and as we shivered in the cold, we all watched with admiration as the childcare workers got the young children out of the building at lightning speed, all accounted for and kept warm and calm.
It's at times like that you realise just how important those child-to-carer ratios are - and what an impact the government's latest proposals to increase them could have. Certainly all the childcare staff I saw during the drill looked like they had their hands pretty full taking care of the little ones in their charge under the current ratios, and it was hard to see how they'd have been able to evacuate safely if they had more children to look after - tucked under their arms perhaps?!
It reminded me, yet again, that it's time to sound the alarm on childcare.
The cost and shortage of childcare is harming our economy and our society. Parents who were once an active part of the workforce are giving up their jobs, childcare costs are overtaking mortgage payments, and women are being held back from senior positions in all industries.
The evidence is so clear, and the arguments so well-rehearsed, that tackling the childcare problem is absolutely fundamental to addressing a whole host of issues, not least improving maternal employment rates, particularly for single parents. But then why is there still no sense of urgency from the government to act? And when I say act I don't just mean tinkering round the edges with ratio proposals, but properly biting the bullet and putting serious investment into childcare to fix it once and for all?
Much as we have heard many warm words from government about how they understand the importance of childcare, and we even - allegedly - got close to an announcement on investment a few months ago, in the echoing silence since all we actually have are delayed announcements and reports of coalition squabbles over how to spend (any) money.
Which, in itself, shows that they haven't really got it at all. Because if the government truly acknowledged the crisis that childcare in the UK is in, it would not bicker over which group of female voters to buy off with a small cash injection, it would instead begin a fundamental system reform that would not only help to transform how we work and how we care for our children, but would also significantly strengthen the economy. Just look at all those Scandinavian countries that have childcare sewn up and seem to be weathering the 'global' recession far better than we are.
If declaring a state of emergency is the only way to get politicians to tackle our country's childcare seriously, then it's time to sound the klaxon.