Elsewhere in Europe, there is a better understanding of the importance of supporting women’s own provision of childcare
It is extraordinary that the government is only now turning its attention to childcare. Given their record of rising child poverty (3.5 million children, including more than half of children of colour; police in Islington distributing food vouchers to kids shoplifting bread), we can’t assume that mothers’ and children’s wellbeing will be the aim. Rather, childcare is a means of getting mothers, especially those on benefit, out to work.
So I’m shocked but not surprised by Elizabeth Truss’s proposal for more “industrialised” childcare – raising low wages by raising productivity; one adult to cater for the needs of six toddlers. Not too many seem convinced that any adult can do that without constant crisis or worse.
Just as unbelievable is that an education in English and maths is a training for caring. In fact loving care, which any sensible mother might have told them is the central need of children, was not even mentioned by the minister. We know from the experience of raising the educational qualifications for nurses that caring has not been enhanced by a university degree; quite the opposite. I’ve heard nurses complain that their supervisors demand they spend less time chatting with patients and get on with the bandaging or the injection or the pill-dispensing.
There’s also an assumption that a basic function of childcare is lifting the child to the first rung of the education ladder. But what children learn in childcare is how to be with others. Catering to their needs enables them to more easily relate. If the staff levels are too low, children will have to compete with others for affection and attention. That is not what we want our children to learn.
The government plans are in response not only to the crisis of unaffordable childcare that many sectors of women have complained about, but also a rise in the need for childcare. More women are going out to work – or at least looking for work in a dread job climate – because of desperate financial need. For example, in 1999 income support for single mothers began to be phased out. Since then thousands of women have been thrown onto the job market. When this particular cut (based on Tony Blair’s characterisation of mothers caring at home as “workless”) was imposed by New Labour, there was no accompanying policy for caring for the children of mothers forced out to work.
Beneath this major and, many think, destructive change in social values is the assumption that women are better off if they leave their children for waged work. What work, for what wages, and at what cost? Shouldn’t we ask? The obvious class facts remain largely unstated. As Alison Wolf writes:
“A majority [of woman] do jobs … concentrated in heavily feminised occupations such as retailing, cleaning and clerical work. Their average earnings per hour and over a lifetime are well below those of males” .
Many women have a different view to the government of when their children are too young to be with strangers full-time: 88% of mothers with young children who have full-time jobs would rather work part-time or be full-time carers, according to a MumsNet survey. A case in point is childminders – mothers who want to raise their own children and finance this by sharing the work of raising other people’s children.
We have to remember that women forced to take whatever job is available will be forced also to take whatever childcare is available which they can afford. Most of us are just not in a position to defend our children from being among the “too many” that the childcare worker has to deal with. Polly Toynbee’s description of toddlers “strapped into high chairs in front of the TV” is already a reality for many. Mothers know it and are helpless and often riddled with guilt in the face of it.
When a decade ago a Guardian journalist desperate that she had little time for her children and worried that her own interests contradicted theirs, asked “Is more childcare really what we and our children need?” she was asking a key question.
And since the government appears to favour European examples, let’s give some. In Finland and Norway parents are entitled to a universal cash-for-care benefit if they care for young children at home rather than use publicly funded day care. In Norway 68% of parents with under-threes welcomed this as freedom of choice even when they didn’t apply themselves. In Finland, more than 50% of mothers with children under three apply for the benefit.
This begins to recognise and respect the caring relationship between parent (usually the mother) and child. Important enough to fund.