This week, I attended a Westminster Education Forum entitled ‘The Future of Childcare and Early years Provision”. I was especially interested to attend as the cost of childcare is raised again and again as I travel the UK debating the issues that are holding women back in the workplace.
We have had the welcome announcement this week that we have achieved the 25% target, for women on the boards of the FTSE 100 companies , set by Lord Davies in his 2011 report (albeit these have been mainly NED appointments).
Whilst this is another step on the journey towards true equality for women in the workplace, we must not forget the many other millions of women who are at the early and mid stages of their career.
63% of students graduating from our Universities with firsts are female, will these females really have the same choices and pay as men, or will the lack of flexible working, decent part time work and the cost of childcare get in the way?
According to recent CMI stats, 69% of junior managers are female, yet only 23% of senior management is female.
What is happening to our female talent? Is there a link between this loss of talent and affordable and accessible childcare?
Will the 30 hours free provision of childcare for children age 3 and 4, announced by David Cameron last week, make a difference?
There has recently been a cross party study into Affordable Childcare, chaired by Lord Sutherland. The findings of the report will be available to the public in September, but Lord Sutherland raised some interesting points during the forum yesterday.
Affordable childcare has to be affordable, not only for parents, but for childcare providers, the government and employers and all of these groups have their own objectives and priorities.
For parents, the cost of childcare, which in the UK is 4.5 x that of France and Germany, can force decisions about which parent puts their career on hold, how many hours they can work, where they can work and all too often, this results in women (who undertake 75% of all care for young and elderly dependents) stepping down into part time jobs. This can have a massive impact on their chances of promotion. Many senior roles go hand in hand with long hours and a ‘being available on the spot’ culture and this is just not compatible with family life. For many women, the lack of flexibility in middle/senior roles cannot be balanced with family commitments and they subsequently move into lower grade part time roles. Women who choose to take a break from work whilst children are small can really struggle to re establish their career and many advise me that they just never do catch up.
For thousands of women who want to enjoy both being a mother and a working woman, the cost of childcare for 2 children under school age can be equivalent to their full time wage. Will 30 hours free childcare enable many more women to return to work or work more hours? I’m sure it will, but availability, quality and locality of childcare are also fundamental and with the number of registered child minders reducing by 10% per year and councils only providing 30% of the childcare needed during school holidays, there are surely capacity problems ahead.
Childcare providers are currently reporting (Building Blocks report) reductions in profit, difficulty recruiting and retaining staff, massive increases in the cost of training staff and an ageing workforce demographic. The industry currently does not have the capacity needed to provide the extra hours of free childcare and will struggle to make the profit needed to cover the extra administrative burden of implementing the changes. The funding of childcare needs simplifying for both parents and childcare providers and the industry needs help to attract, retain and up-skill its employees. The provision of childcare has undergone rigorous regulation over the past 10 years and rightly so, but we must ensure that the sector is enabled to afford to deliver the 30 hour scheme and that the free hours are available without driving up costs of the additional hours needed by many parents.
How affordable is childcare for the government? We are already spending 5 billion of public monies on childcare in this country each year and this will rise to 6.2 billion with the new scheme. The Education, Employment and Treasury departments all have their own objectives re the spend, which only serves to complicate the whole issue. Are we overlooking something glaringly obvious and simple?
Sir Christopher Pissadares is a Regius Professor of Economics at LES and he spoke recently at the world economic forum in Davos about the economic benefits of providing free childcare for children age 1 – 5 of working parents. According to his calculations, this would return a positive contribution of £2000 per full time returning woman, each year. This is achieved through a combination of the tax raised by thousands or women returning to work after 12 months, instead of taking up to 3 years off and the creation of thousands of childcare jobs. How can we fail to look seriously at his findings when the long term benefits for women, employers, the childcare industry and most importantly the children are so obvious?
Initial findings from the provision of the 15 free hours for 2 yr olds show that only 12000 women returned to work or gained employment, which works out at a cost of £65000 per job created! Will 30 hours free childcare produce any better results?
Finally, how have employers reacted to the announcement of the 30 hour scheme? For many SMEs the whole maternity/paternity leave process is a financial and administrative nightmare, which can still lead to bias when employing/promoting women between the ages of 28 and 40. Employers serious about attracting and retaining the best of talent must building flexible working practices into the core of their strategy, flexible working patterns which include home working wherever possible. This, in addition to the 30 hours free childcare will enable thousands of talented women to continue in their careers and ensure that employers do not lost out on years of investment in their young female employees.
At the summation of the Westminster Education forum re The Future of Childcare, Baroness Massey of Darwen asked, “Is this about women going back to work or is it about improving the long term aspirations and success of children? – it is both.
Access to regular, good quality pre school childcare is proven to advance a child’s development by as much as 19 months, by the age of 5. With 50% of male prisoners in the UK either illiterate or innumerate, this is a social responsibility we cannot ignore.
What was made clear by the many childcare providers, researchers, employers and parents at the forum this week, was that the funding of the UK early years childcare system needs radical simplification for both providers and parents and also substantial investment. If we are to secure the best of futures for all our children and real equality in employment for women - there is much more work to be done than 30 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds of working parents.
And lest we should forget: in the words of C.S Lewis “Children are not a distraction from more important work. They are the most important work”
If you enjoy my blogs, you can read more of my work in my book available here www.amazon.co.uk/Words-Walks-Wisdom-Wendy-Bowers/dp/1671172353