Child care is the biggest concern for parents

COST and local variations a deterrent, writes Dave Watson

A comprehensive strategy is sadly lacking for childcare. Picture: AP

Childcare in Scotland has changed exponentially over the past decade. We are, however, a long way from building a society with genuine space for parents to nurture children, and stay in work.

Childcare is often the family’s biggest monthly bill. Parents in Scotland pay 27 per cent of their household income on childcare, whereas the average for OECD countries is 12 per cent. More than 60 per cent of mothers say the high cost of childcare is a significant barrier to taking on more, or any, work.

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The workplace penalty for motherhood is substantial: taking time out makes it harder to find a job when you return, it can and does leads to lower wages, and a gap in pension contributions increases the risk of poverty in old age.

Parents want to balance a decent income and time with their children. Subsidised childcare helps. But we must also change workplaces with better flexible working, part-time work and paternity leave to reduce the impact of motherhood on women’s earnings and the gender pay gap. The living wage, minimum year’s paid maternity leave, rights to time off and flexible working, and ongoing training and development opportunities, regardless of whether you work full or part-time, are important in helping ordinary women and their families.

Much of the current debate on the gender pay gap and discrimination concentrates on high-paid board room executives breaking glass ceilings, which has little impact on the lives of most women and parents in Scotland. Childcare cannot be separated from improved maternity leave and flexible workers’ rights.

And the Scottish childcare system is complex and stressful to work your way around. Until you know what specific childcare is available, then it’s impossible to say what hours you will be able to work. Parents can’t secure childcare until they know what hours they may be expected to work or how much they will be earning. It is hard for those hoping to negotiate changing working patterns returning to their pre-child job and almost impossible for those trying to find new work.

Parents looking for care for under-threes use private sector nurseries, third sector organisations, or child minders. Costs are high and availability across the country is patchy as is information about what is out there.

For over-threes, local authority centres tend to offer three-hour morning or afternoon education sessions which are unsuitable for most working parents. There are also limited places so even if the hours suited there are not enough places to meet demand. And the public sector does not allow you to “buy” extra hours you may need. Many who would choose the public sector are forced into the private sector so they can continue to work.

The money the council gives for your “free hours” is a set rate. It bears no relation to the actual hourly fees your private nursery charges. In private nurseries you also only get whole or half days so even if you pick up your child at 4:30pm you still pay until 6pm.

And crucially childcare must be based on what’s best for children.

Child development research tells us time and again, childcare must be quality care, and that is linked to quality of the workforce, and how they can develop skills and professional qualifications.

The workforce, particularly in the private sector is not well paid. Pay must reflect the skills and experience required to do the job. The skills required to deliver high quality childcare, as with much work traditionally done by women, are not widely recognised or rewarded in the market. In short, the childcare workforce is the bedrock of the future of Scotland in so many ways, yet we fail to invest in them.

And childcare could be so much more. Invest properly and it takes the pressure off families, it enables women to take up paid work, it creates demand in the economy, it ensures that working mothers can continue to pay into tax pots and pensions. More than that, high-quality care will give children the best possible start in life.

Children have the right to be cared for by their parents. Expanding childcare is about better lives for families not forcing parents into full time work. This will bring longer term savings to a range of public services and short term savings to the benefits bill.

Transform childcare and we transform Scotland. Preventative spending to really tackle inequality. It needs free childcare delivered in the public sector; fair pay, professional development, preparation time and study leave for nursery staff; research what type of care parents want; extension of paid parental leave; improved flexible working rights.

A comprehensive strategy, not simply a political bidding war over hours, is needed. It’s Scotland’s future, so it’s worth investing in now.

• Dave Watson is Scottish organiser for trade union Unison Scotland