img-childcare125 June 2015 saw the Commission for Childcare Reform delivered a letter of recommendations to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell. It contained seventeen points that would address the current crisis that disadvantages families across the country. This follows the First Minister’s heartfelt pledge for a “childcare revolution” at the SNP conference last November. The report hopes to be a template for change by addressing how Scotland can attain its long-term vision for world-class childcare. But can this ambitious vision be realised with current thinking?

Reality in Scotland

Childcare isn’t working in Scotland. It doesn’t work for families, it doesn’t work for children and it doesn’t work for the economy. The need to radically overhaul it has been identified by the commission and collectively across the country’s political parties, yet this recognized need has yet to find its way to the people on the ground. Current statistics paint a grim indictment of a system rooted in the socio-political and economic landscapes of decades previous. This year, a nursery place for under-twos in the North East rose by 14%, costing parents well over £6,000 a year. Only 15% of local authorities can provide enough childcare for full-time working parents – a drop of 8% from the 2014. In some rural areas, provision simply doesn’t exist, despite the promise of 600 hours of free care for each child. Many local authorities can only offer half-day places, rendering them unusable for families who need meaningful solutions in order to go to or find work.

The options available to families don’t reflect the outward looking progressive nation we hope to be – and until we get this right, our loftier aspiration of having parity at our heart is a fading light on the horizon.

The options available to families don’t reflect the outward looking progressive nation we hope to be – and until we get this right, our loftier aspiration of having parity at our heart is a fading light on the horizon.

Global Contemporaries

When it comes to childcare, we have much to learn from our global contemporaries. Elsewhere, viable models exist, and their benefit permeates far beyond the individual or family. In Denmark, families pay only up to 25% of the cost of childcare, with low-earning families paying nothing. This means that almost all mothers in Denmark work, ranking them fifth in the world for female for female employment rates. The idea of not returning to work after having a baby is what raises eyebrows – a stark contrast to the often castigated working mother stereotype in Britain.

Similarly, the Swedish model is subsidised and means-tested, providing capped, income-contingent fees, allowing both parents to work and the average family to take home 70% of their salaries. For this level of financial comfort, UK families would require a household income of around £80k per year. With the average Scottish family bringing in around £23,000, the resultant deficit in opportunity is astronomic.

Scotland’s challenges

The report delivered to the First Minister highlights how in many cases, fragmentary provision not only fails to meet family needs, it hinders them through stress, financial impact and an inability to fully access work and educational opportunity. In Scotland, reliance on informal childcare is high, making social-mobility a lottery of circumstance, and fortifying an insidious societal precedent for bootstrapping. This combined with Scotland’s share of the inflexible sector and atypical working patterns, means that the likelihood of having a family life and financial stability are far from the grasp of many Scottish families.

Childcare and how we view women

But poor childcare is not only fails families; it directly fails women by impeding their life chances. Women deserve the right to a career and personal success that isn’t dictated by their reproductive value. Girls shouldn’t have to factor their future familial plans into the paths they chose for themselves. Having children should not mean the death or achievement or ambition, as it does for so many women. Women should not have to see their options wither thanks to the limitations we place on them through their bodies.

The impact of half the population having to choose between not having children, or significantly modifying or dropping out work, cannot be underestimated. Women face an insidious double-bind between not earning at all, or significantly affecting future earnings due to unavoidable career breaks.

The value of family

Though, it’s not just women who stand to gain from these reforms. In essence, they stand for a very simple premise – for all parents to receive, so they both have the right to earn. This idea is simple, but so often missing from policy approach. With this central idea, childcare is recognised as an interplay between a myriad of factors unique to each family, making for more joined up thinking in political decision making.

Flexible work cultures with this notion front and centre recognise the true needs of families. This bolsters state childcare policies that place value in gender equality – giving worth to every family member, regardless of sex. Generous leave entitlements allow fathers a greater presence in the early years of their children’s lives, whilst also helping women back into the workforce.

Childcare that works isn’t siloed by financial constraints, and considers the importance of finding a real work-life balance. This allows for more meaningful parental leave, improving child bonding and home labour division, whilst contributing to a societal shift in gender roles and responsibility.

Towards a better nation

If Scotland wants to become a true egalitarian, it must get childcare right. Though being on the agenda isn’t enough. Reforming it will mean looking far beyond the financial to how deeply the issue is hemmed into the societal fabric. It will require a seismic shift in how we view the population – for each to be considered of equal value, and to be afforded the same opportunities, regardless of income or gender. Only then will we become a true global exemplar for equality. Let’s hope Nicola Sturgeon keeps her promise.

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