Superwoman comes to the rescue

Best-selling author Shirley Conran has discovered the sorry state of Britain's childcare. She's lobbying for change

As a young woman, with children, I vowed that as soon as the kids were old enough I'd do something about the plight of working mothers. In the same way that I tackled housework in Superwoman I'd address the fact that the work-home-family juggling act left women feeling wrung out and depressed and there was an urgent need to do something about it. But the children got a little bit older and I was still too damn exhausted to do much. Finally, when my family did grow up, I'm sorry to say that my interest in the work-home-family issue vanished overnight.

Recently I returned to Britain after working abroad for 20 years and was horrified to discover that the childcare situation had worsened since my day, while at the same time there is far more pressure in the workplace.

One of my goddaughters, who runs a crime prevention charity and has two under 5s, complained bitterly of the popularity of breakfast meetings among childless executives. Another young female friend summed up the crisis: "Every intelligent working mother is aware of the problems, but we have no idea what to do about them and we're too bloody knackered to try."

Twenty years on, I've realised that if I don't want to see my grandchildren on the exhausting treadmill of job-housework-bed-job-housework-bed, then perhaps I'd better do something. At least now I have the time.

Not that it's been plain sailing so far. Keen to find out who is ultimately responsible for childcare, I've already spent a day being shuffled from tin voice to tin voice in the departments of Health, Education, Employment, Equal Opportunities, the Government's Women's Units and the Inland Revenue (the worst). Invariably I was told that the person ultimately responsible was the Minister, and he or she was responsible to the Prime Minister. So I had a chat with the Downing Street Press Office and put my request in writing. ("Who is the coordinator? Who is the person who points out to the PM that the Benefits Association is wonderfully family friendly but that the Houses of Parliament are the reverse?")

Back came the prompt reply from the PM's office: "There is not an individual or department that acts as a coordinator on the kind of issues you have raised."

It's not as though the childcare issue is a new problem. As long ago as 1976 a report from the Department of Employment stated: "If society is to make the fullest use of its human resources and at the same time to provide equal opportunities for women for work and training, the key factor for many women must be the expansion of childcare facilities."

Given the opportunity to speak to a politician, I'd explain that today 50 per cent of the workforce is women and one in five managers are female - so why has there been so little progress? Of course, I realise that the present Labour government did not create the lack of good childcare (although a Labour government dismantled the excellent British nursery system in1945). The present Government is keenly aware of these problems, and has started to tackle some of them; they cannot be solved overnight, we are told.

But why do I feel that if young children suddenly were made the sole responsibility of the male parent, then State nurseries would mushroom overnight, just as they did in the Second World War when women were urgently needed on farms and in munitions factories?

I'd go on to acknowledge that, of course, there have been some small victories. New Working Families Tax Credit will provide help for poor families. But paying for childcare is the biggest weekly outlay for almost all working mothers. When will all of them get this tax break?

It's no use telling women to go back home if they want to raise children. There's no way that we're going to go backwards. Meanwhile, working fathers have less time to help out too. They feel trapped by a corporate credo that expects almost ecclesiastical dedication to the office. When does a father find the time and energy to enjoy his children, let alone find the strength to give them the moral guidance the Government advises?

Of course, industry has an ultimate objective: to make money. This means that any proposed changes must provide positive financial inducement, especially for small businesses that feel they cannot afford the luxury of family-friendly policies.

Yet can this country afford to ignore the problem? With an NHS bill for stress-related illness of pounds 2bn per year and one in five children suffering from a stress-related problem, I would argue that we've no choice.

So who will pay for family-friendly changes? Indirectly we all will. As corporations are obliged to take over the care once provided by family, church and state, the employer is being pushed into the position of community care-provider, which may be a more efficient way of sharing the national system support load than by raising taxes.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, I've contacted a few mothers who were also tired of waiting for somebody else to tackle their problems and we've formed Mothers in Management. Probably you wouldn't recognise the names of anyone on my small committee (which includes a single man, a single woman and a father), but they are a hardworking and forceful bunch. When I see them rushing to our lunchtime meetings with a bulging briefcase in one hand and a bag of sandwiches in the other, I am always amazed and proud that they manage to turn up. I also wonder, if such worthy people have such a job getting to our meetings, how can they find time to be a caring part of the community, as this Government wishes? They can't find time to care for themselves, let alone the community.

Our first decision was to hold a conference on 30 September 1999, when memories of the exhausting school summer holiday will be still fresh. We plan to gather together 350 achieving working mothers - the managers - to discuss what needs doing and how we are going to get it done. Euston Town Hall with lunch boxes? "No," growled someone. "We'll hold it where the men hold their conferences - at the Savoy."

The day will be a mix of speeches (Sir Dennis Stevenson, Glenys Kinnock, Professor Cary Cooper and Susie Orbach have accepted) with table-based discussions before and after a celebrity luncheon attended by many of our patrons, who range from Lady Irvine to Richard E Grant and Lynda La Plante.

Our advisers are in place: Parents at Work and Antidote, the charity that promotes emotional literacy in education. Yesterday we recruited a part-time secretary and today the fax is working (0171 628 3591). Our first ticket has been sold... to a one-parent father. All we need now is 349 mothers in management. Is there anyone out there?


! British childcare costs are the highest in Europe. A family with one child at school and a baby pays an average pounds 6,000 a year.

! There is only one registered childcare place for every nine children under age eight.

! Only 10 per cent of British companies provide childcare assistance for workers. Two per cent have a workplace nursery.

! Thirty-five percent of women who do not return to work blame the fact that they don't earn enough to pay for childcare.

! Mainland Europe is markedly better. Finland, Denmark and Sweden have had good childcare facilities since the 1970s.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.


ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Developer

    £16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a world leader ...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

    £13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

    Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

    £19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

    £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future