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Time for Parenting...

...because raising children is a full-time job

Limited choice for parents: the government's vision for 'the best start for children'

The government's ten year strategy for early years and childcare was published alongside the pre-budget report on 2 December 2004. The document, entitled, Choice for parents, the best start for children, set forth the following goals:

  • 12 months paid maternity leave by the end of the next Parliament, with the option for the mother to transfer a proportion of her paid leave to the father if she wishes;
  • 3,500 local Children's Centres by 2010, offering 'information, health, family support, childcare and other services for parents and children' (2,500 to be in place by 2008)
  • an 'affordable, flexible, high quality childcare place' for all families with children aged up to 14
  • 15 hours a week of 'free high quality care' for 38 weeks a year for all 3 and 4 year olds by 2010, with the long-term aim of providing 20 hours a week for 38 weeks a year
  • an out-of-school childcare place for all children aged 3-14 between the hours of 8am to 6pm each weekday (including holidays) by 2010.

False assumption

From start to finish, the strategy is based on the false assumption that mothers want to work and that the lack of affordable high quality childcare is the main obstacle to achieving that objective:

'high quality childcare is just one of many services today's families need…Bringing these services together in a more joined up way will help ensure that parents are able to make real choices about their work and family lives' (1.5).

However, the range of 'real choices' outlined in the strategy does not extend to helping mothers to stay at home with their children beyond the first year.

The document itemises the challenges faced by the government in meeting the perceived need for more childcare, offering parents support to balance work and family life, and helping families break out of the cycle of poverty and worklessness. It laments that:

'too many parents, especially mothers, who would like to stay in work and develop their careers after their children are born are not able to do so, which can have considerable costs to the family and to the wider economy' (1.8).

However, concern for those parents, especially mothers, who would like to stay at home with their children, but are finding themselves forced out into the workplace is conspicuous by its absence.

Changed priorities

The strategy document notes in passing the findings of a survey showing that 63 per cent of mothers currently in employment wanted to work fewer hours, and 44 per cent of working mothers would prefer to give up work and stay at home with their children if they could afford to do so (2.53), but still fails to acknowledge the changes that occur in the scale of priorities of most women when they have children.

Research undertaken by Dr Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics concluded that women fall into three categories in terms of their choices relating to work and family. There were (i) 'work-centred' women who gave first priority to their careers (15-20 per cent of the population); (ii) 'family-centred' women who devote their lives to their home and family (also 15-20 per cent of the population); and (iii) 'adaptive' women whose lives encompass both work and family (60-70 per cent of the population). Those in this third category tend to reduce their hours of employment or leave the workplace completely when their children are young or when they face other family demands.

Yet the government appears to be oblivious to the reality that most mothers with young children make a conscious decision to give up work or at least reduce their hours because they positively want to be with their children. For such women neither the affordability nor the quality of the childcare on offer is the issue. There is simply no substitute for the care of a mother for her own child. Her interest in her child is personal, not professional; and what she does, she does out of love, not for money.

Choice for parents seems to celebrate the fact that male employment rates have fallen from around 92 per cent in 1971 to less than 80 per cent today, while over the same period the proportion of women working has increased from 56 per cent to 70 per cent. However, we are still 'some way behind the Scandinavian countries'. There, 80 per cent of women are in employment, most of them employed full-time, whereas in the UK around 40 per cent of women work part-time.

So, we still have some way to go to achieve the desired 'gender equality', and that is where childcare comes in.

The strategy states:

'It is noticeable that many of the countries where motherhood makes little or no difference to labour market participation - like Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Belgium and France - are countries with well developed systems of childcare provision' (2.40).

But is this really what we want to achieve? Do we really want to reach the point where motherhood makes no difference to labour market participation? Such an objective is cutting against the grain of the natural maternal instincts of most women, and denying the fundamental needs of young children.

Parental responsibility

In his pre-budget report, Gordon Brown re-asserted the 'enduring Beveridge Report principles':

'that the family is the bedrock of society; that nothing should be done to remove from parents their responsibilities to their children; and that it is in the national interest to help parents meet their responsibilities.'

And yet behind the rhetoric, what the government is doing is to remove young children from the care and influence of their parents and to place them in state-regulated facilities, while still reserving the right to hold parents responsible for the behaviour of their children in the event of the experiment failing, which it inevitably will.

Like the Chancellor in his pre-budget report, the ten year strategy document also contains some warm and positive references to the importance of parents, but such references are at variance with the overall tenor of the strategy. For example, we are told that:

'Parents want to secure the best for their children, and to see them fulfil their potential in later life. They will frequently make large personal sacrifices to ensure that this is the case. Parents are the best decision makers about the interests of their children. The role for government is to support parents in the choices they make' (2.10).

Yet the whole emphasis of the strategy is on supporting parents in the choices they make only if those choices involve leaving their children in the care of others while they go out to work.

'During the first year of a child's life, in the majority of cases it is good for the child to receive consistent one-to-one care. For health reasons (e.g. breastfeeding) mothers should have a genuine choice to be the main carer in the early months of a child's life' (A.29).

But after those early months, the 'genuine choice' evaporates and social and financial pressure is applied to force the mother to withdraw her consistent one-to-one care.

Social engineering

The strategy acknowledges that 'high levels of group care of poor quality below the age of three can have a small negative effect on behaviour for some children' (2.16), but the damaging effects of daycare are very much downplayed. Instead, a positive gloss is put upon childcare, which, we are assured, 'benefits society as a whole', 'can play a role in breaking the cycle of disadvantage', and 'is critical in supporting social mobility and creating equality of opportunity'. Such terms alone strongly suggest that the vision for childcare set out in the ten year strategy owes more to social engineering than to the true welfare of women, children and families.

Notes

1. Choice for parents, the best start for children: a ten year strategy for childcare, HM Treasury, December 2004.
2. A helpful summary of Dr Hakim's research will be found in Choosing to be Different: Women, work and the family, by Jill Kirby (Centre for Policy Studies, 2003). Copies are available from the Family & Youth Concern office priced at £5.00 + £1.00 p&p.

This article first appeared in Family Bulletin Issue No. 118 (Winter 2004/2005), published by Family & Youth Concern, Jubilee House, 19-21 High Street, Whitton, Twickenham TW2 7LB.

t: 020 8894 2525, w: www.famyouth.org.uk, email