30/06/2015 07:42 BST | Updated 05/05/2017 14:42 BST

Summer childcare dilemmas

The sun's out at last and it's almost the summer holidays. Hurray. Or possibly not. Polls suggest that many parents - the majority even - tend to leave it till the last minute, hoping something will turn up or that they can patch together some agreement with relatives and friends to get them through the five or six weeks till September.

Every year there are the same old debates about whether the school summer holidays are too long and could be spread more evenly around the rest of the year. But that doesn't deal with the essential issue of parents' holidays not in any way equalling those their children get, even if each parent takes them separately.

Short of limiting children's holidays - and they are already stressed enough with homework and countless tests - what is the solution?

Last week the Scottish Commission for Childcare Reform called for a radical new vision on childcare and specified the need for joined up thinking, rather than isolated ad hoc policies, many of which are contradictory, in any event.

Take the new policies, soon to be introduced, on childcare tax rebates and doubling free hours for three and four year olds.

Setting aside concerns about the funding of the free hours and availability of places, children are not three and four for long and many three and four year olds have siblings who pay the full whack or need after school and holiday clubs. The childcare tax rebate opens up childcare support to those who can't access childcare vouchers, but there are concerns that it will favour those who are able to afford higher childcare costs. There are also fears the rebate could drive up childcare bills - as has happened in the past - leaving parents not much better off. We'll have to wait and see.

Tax credits

Of course, any move to bring down childcare costs is welcome. However, at the same time as introducing these measures, the government is apparently likely to make big cuts to tax credits.

The argument is that this will force companies to increase the salaries for those at the lower end of the pay scale. There is a case to be made about whether tax credits have allowed employers to lower their wages, but many parents are struggling now and wages are not going up significantly and are unlikely to in the near future, particularly in the public sector. Employers, particularly the smaller ones, will argue that they cannot raise wages when the economic recovery is still not secure - and the Greek crisis has yet to play out. Cutting tax credits at this time and hoping employers pick up the tab seems slightly optimistic. Instead parents will either be forced to leave work because they cannot afford childcare or work all hours so that they can just about cover the costs and use a patchwork of friends, parents and others to look after their children - which can break down at any time - or leave older children to fend for themselves.

The summer holidays are a case in point. While a lot of the focus of the childcare debate during the elections was on the early years, many parents find school a significant challenge childcare-wise. Often they are forced to leave jobs to get through the summer.

There have been huge changes in the UK in the last 20 years. Women are much more likely to stay in work after having children. Stay-at-home mums have become a minority. Yet childcare policy still focuses on individual parents getting tax rebates and the like rather than on the bigger picture.

A recent European Council report, greeted with the usual anti-European hoo ha in various media about Europe forcing stay-at-home mothers into work, called for the British government to do more to provide affordable, high quality childcare. It pointed out that the number of stay-at-home mums and mums who work part time in the UK is double the European average. Why is that? Do British mothers want to stay with their children more than their continental peers or is the system just not supportive enough of working parents in the UK? In many countries in Europe childcare providers are subsidised, rather than individual parents, and childcare is seen as a social benefit. Instead of focusing on the question posed by the statistics in the European Council report, though, much of the debate in the UK has focused on pitching working mums against stay-at-home mums, as usual.

Employer initiatives

Some employers are looking at new ways to help out with childcare, including summer childcare. One such employer is Deloitte which recently implemented an agile working programme which includes an initiative for employees to request one month off unpaid at any time in the year. Deloitte says many of the requests it has received have been from dads, with parents weighing up the cost of unpaid leave versus money saved on, for instance, summer holiday childcare. Some part-time staff have also considered increasing to five days a week as a result of the ability to take one month off. Deloitte says that with proper planning, continuity of business has not been adversely affected.

Many parents would not be able to forego earnings over the summer holidays, but the initiative at least puts the holiday challenge on the agenda. Another alternative is annualised hours or term time only working.

Between them, parents and employers are having to come up with increasingly creative approaches to holiday childcare as more and more families face the challenges, but they can only do so much. The Commission on Childcare Reform is right that we need a radical reform which also embraces the availability of flexible jobs, another of the main barriers for families trying to balance work and children. That reform needs to address the ongoing tectonic shifts in our social structure and to support families as they are now and how they will be in the future.