Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has announced a plan for shared parental leave. From April 2015, eligible mothers and fathers will be entitled to shared parental leave of up to 50 weeks, following the first two weeks recovery period mothers have to take after birth. The plan is to help relieve some stress from parents juggling work and childcare. And to create a fairer society and a modern workplace that give parents the flexibility to choose how they share care during their child's first year.
Politicians and others have mooted many good reasons as to why this is a good idea. First up is the earlier dads are involved with their children, the stronger their engagement. This gets my support given what we at the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) have learned through the London Men in Childcare Network. Primarily, the importance of having both men and women caring for small children from their earliest age.
The second argument is the one that makes you wonder what happened to all the feminists. Can you believe that in 2013 we still have to champion the view that women deserve the right to pursue their career while also raising a family? Working should not be a requirement, but it should be an option women can choose without a bucket-load of guilt.
When Clegg made the announcement, I detected a bit of government starchiness when it came to employers. Although the government was clear it does not intend to add significant burden to businesses, I felt a bit of finger-wagging going on, and a sort of snooty view about employers. I am probably very sensitive to this because as a childcare employer it's hard for me to justify a business case that allows a great deal of flexibility for my own staff. I need them between 8am and 6pm, 51 weeks a year, to care for the nation's children. Their jobs are much misunderstood and undervalued by society.
My own staff have raised a further concern with parental leave. How can employers ensure fairness and flexibility for all staff, including those who do not have children? Should we have some other form of flexible benefits for them?
The shared parental leave policy is a step towards helping parents juggle the cost of childcare for the first year of their baby's life. But it still leaves the thorny question of how parents will pay for childcare until their child is eligible for 15 hours of government-funded care as a three-year-old. Will childcare ever become a universal offer like school? Or will it remain market-led where parents bear the brunt of the cost.
Clegg, who has paid us a visit at LEYF (see picture above), has created an opportunity to raise this debate more widely now. His announcement about shared parental leave has prompted society to think again about the role children play in our society, and who bears the responsibility of raising them. Now is the time to kindle that debate. I want to know if we can shape a modern, urban society that concedes to the view that it takes a village to raise a child. It is a shared responsibility.