Webinar: Childcare in crisis: how do we fix a broken system?

Childcare is something dear to my heart – and dear to my wallet as it is to most other parents as was the subject of this seminar held by the Global Institute for Women’s leadership. They have published a collection of resources on this and four speakers presented at this webinar on some of the challenges.

First up was Bridget Phillipson MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education who talked about the Labour Party plans to reform childcare. She said we need to learn from the past, what is stopping the system working now and taking inspiration from other countries. And using this as a way to plan and prepare for the future. Our childcare is some of the most expensive in the world and is also not delivering what we need as a society. improve early years education and the link between schools and childcare. She also talked about how different terminology around childcare is confusing and means that we are not always clear about what we are reforming or trying to do and for what ages of children. We need a system that delivers enriching care from birth onwards, addressing the needs of older children too, as well as going beyond the constraints of the school year, which is not structured around the needs of parents.

Next went Rachel de Souza DBE, Children’s Commissioner for England who called for schools to offer extended hour provision and become the hub of childcare for many families, as well as more support for childminders. She talked about an holistic approach that considers parents and children’s needs as interrelated. Rachel also highlighted something that has frustrated me in that there is a disconnect between parental leave which runs for the first year of a child’s life and childcare options where there are more opportunities for 2 year olds. What about 1 year olds?! Covid has had an impact on the gender gap around childcare, slowly the gap between the time that mothers and fathers spend with their children, so gradually working patterns are becoming less gendered, but there is still a perception problem in terms of how much childcare mothers and fathers do. Rachel called for parental leave to be rethought to change the gendered perceptions of childcare.

The third speaker was Elliott Rae, Founder of Music Football Fatherhood. Elliot talked about how perceptions of fatherhood have changed since the 60s and how fathers want to spend more time with their children now, although there are still “expectations” or pressures as to the role of fathers as the provider and primary breadwinner. He called for systemic change in two key areas. Firstly, for Dads to be fully engaged in the maternity process and that Dads are thinking at this stage about the relationship they want with their children and how their life will change, just as mothers do. He cited the example of Manchester where there is an integrated service that supports Dads in parenting independently (something that I thought women are just expected to do, quite often, and then we end up “supporting” Dads and not respecting their individual, independent parenting skills. I’m thinking with some embarrassment about going away and leaving my partner reams of notes on how to look after his own kids. Sigh and I know so many others who have done similar things). Secondly, making flexible working standard, underpinned by strong leadership and role modelling.

Lastly Joeli Brearley, Author and Founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, told some heartbreaking stories of women’s appalling treatment in the workplace concerning support, or lack of, for pregnancy and motherhood. It made me very aware of my privilege and the support I have received. Higher education is not perfect in many ways, and there were things we could definitely do better on in relation to parental support, but I have been incredibly supported in all my maternity leaves, which has made me a more effective employee since becoming a parent. It shocks and frustrates me that all women do not have the same opportunities. 1 in 9 pregnant women in the UK lose their jobs because they are pregnant. I literally could not believe this. In 2023! Honestly. This reduced me to angry tears of frustration.

The panel was chaired by Rosie Campbell, Professor of Politics and Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, King’s College London who articulated how childcare is absolutely core to a healthy and functioning society, yet we have a huge challenge with the numbers of staff leaving the early years sector.

What so often frustrates me, and I have been guilty of myself, is in a two parent, heterosexual household, childcare is often seen as the responsibility and cost of the mother. When I had my eldest daughter, and actually thinking about it, my twins, I considered the economics of going back to work in relation to my own salary, not our household entire income. In hindsight this is mad. Childcare should be considered a full household cost and not just the responsibility of individual households to struggle through alone, but a core “infrastructure”. So often though women’s return to work is considered in relation to their income alone, with them going part time (as I did) often attempting to fund inordinately high cost of childcare in an attempt to make it work. When childcare costs are so high, very difficult decisions have to be made and then there is still the challenge of fitting often limited provision around working cultures and hours when parents do return to work. All in all it seems the whole system is set up to fail – it fails employers, employees, wider society, as well as parents and children.

So what can be done… The panel discussion addressed a number of areas. Everyone agreed that there is a desperate need for government to properly fund early years education and enable quality early years education. There was also a plea for proper training and support for the childcare sector, that is not about auditing but more about locally driven solutions to support childminders. Proper support and role modelling for parental leave, particularly for Dads was highlighted. Dads being very open and outgoing about talking about parenting, leaving early to do the school run etc. The whole childcare system needs revisiting by building on what we have. Rachel highlighted challenges around the hours and timing of childcare. Joeli pointed out that childcare is not babysitting and that parents want quality, affordable provision like other countries have it. As Rosie noticed, so often there is an assumption from settings that someone is there at home, such as staggered starts that last weeks when children start school. All in all major investment is required.

The webinar was fascinating and thought-provoking. It made me feel humbled, lucky and equally furious and frustrated that we are not doing better in this area. It has inspired me to try to do more, I can role model supportive behaviours for fellow parents at work and try to champion the needs of parents. I can work with others via the leadership team to promote a supportive culture for parents (well for everyone actually) and reflect that in the things that I do, such as the timing of meetings and so on. I’m sharing this on my blog to remind me to do more and hopefully encourage others to do the same. It doesn’t feel like much, but it is a start. And I hope that after the next election this does become a government priority. You can watch the whole webinar here.

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