The election has seen the political parties vying for who can offer the best deal on childcare. But most of the policies have focused on early years childcare when many parents find the school years more of a challenge – particularly single parents.
The lack of childcare provision over the holidays or after school finishes can mean the difference between staying in work or having to leave or take lower paid, more flexible alternatives.
A recent poll by Workingmums.co.uk found better childcare for after school and holidays was by far the greatest concern of single parents, more than twice as big an issue as more free childcare for under fives. Asked what would help them most with regard to childcare, 54% said better childcare for after school and holidays. Some 25% said more free childcare for under fives and 21% said larger tax rebates for childcare in general.
One woman said: “I would like to go into full-time education, but there is only one registered childminder in the village and her quota is full so I would have to use a babysitter. These do not qualify for any government assistance so a relaxation in these rules by giving an allowance to parents with children under school age would assist greatly and allow more access to training and work.”
However, interestingly, when asked what would help them most, availability of flexible jobs, particularly higher paid ones, was the top concern, chosen by three times more single parents than more subsidised childcare.
As many parents start thinking about the looming summer holidays, some employers are looking at new ways to help out. 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. The month has to be taken in a block. Employees are not asked to put forward a reason for taking the month off, but the majority who have requested it up till now have done so to spend more time with their families, particularly in the summer months which tends to be less busy for business. The time out must be at a time that fits with business needs, that is, not at a peak periods. The negotiation process for taking time out involves a staff member first speaking to their manager informally and talking through what the best time would be for both.
Managers are encouraged to have a positive mindset towards requests and to find ways that can make them work.
Many of the requests made so far 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 are looking to go up 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.
Of course, many parents would not be able to forego earnings over the five weeks of summer holidays, but the initiative at least puts the holiday challenge on the agenda.
Some campaigners have called for a shortening of the summer holidays, to help working parents get the cover they need, but they also argue that children, particularly the most disadvantaged, often find themselves struggling to get back up to speed come the autumn term after such a long break.
Shortening the holiday would not, however, deal with the issue of parents’ holidays, even two parents holidays if they take every holiday separately, not covering the gap between parental holidays and school holidays. Should children’s holidays be more similar to their parents? Many parents would argue that their children are already tired enough from the demands of school and need regular breaks.
Another alternative is annualised hours or term time only working. Christina Leafe, Director, Land & Environment Consultancy, at Atkins devised her own solution when her children were younger. She effectively did a term time only contract, but presented it to her manager as a 93% contract involving two weeks off at Christmas, two weeks at Easter, school inset days and four weeks over the summer. It allowed her to stay in her senior job and to continue to rise up the career ladder.
This would not be possible in many jobs, but it is clear that some creative thinking is necessary if employers are to come to terms with the fact that both parents now want and have to work and that, even though many are currently forced to do so, leaving the kids home alone is not indicative of a society that has really thought through how the world is changing.