The mothers often feel guilty and worried, cannot work properly and may telephone their children several times each hour. The children are ordered to stay indoors.
Fiona Smith, a PhD student at Reading University, told the Institute of British Geographers conference in Nottingham yesterday that the occasional case of gross neglect or abandonment seized on by the Press was only the tip of the iceberg. She has spoken to 500 families, including 300 children, in Richmond upon Thames, Surrey, and Reading, Berkshire, and analysed 470 answers to a questionnaire she devised during her research on childcare provision.
Ms Smith said that her findings were in line with an estimate by the Kids Club Network that 20 per cent of 5- to 10-year olds, some 800,000 children, were left alone after school or during holidays while parents worked. The network advises on the setting up of play schemes for holidays and after-school hours.
'It was astonishingly common,' she told the Independent. 'The parents say they have no choice; they need to work to pay the mortgage and feed their families. Most parents, including those who left their children at home, felt they should not be alone until the age of 13 or 14.'
Many working mothers with unaccompanied children at home would take jobs only within 10 minutes of their houses to be able to attend quickly in an emergency, she said. 'Some of the children said they quite liked being able to do their own thing, but many were bored because they were not allowed to go outside.' Some children had told her alarming stories such as them making toast and sticking knives in the toaster to extract stuck pieces.
Often parents would organise one week's care during the holidays or one afternoon's care a week after school with the children left alone the rest of the time. She predicted that the numbers involved would increase as more women go to work in a country with one of the lowest levels of state- funded childcare in the European Union. 'Unless something is done, the problem has to get worse.'
Ms Smith questioned the Government's preference for voluntary groups and employers to provide childcare for working women. She advocated a state-backed network of out-of-school clubs run by local councils. The cost of such a subsidised service would run to over pounds 1bn a year.
Government guidelines say there should be one adult to eight children in such schemes. There are now about five million school-age children with working mothers, and many more mothers who would like to work if they could find or afford childcare.
Ms Smith cited Reading Borough Council's 10 after-school clubs as an example of good practice. They cost pounds 100,000 a year to run and look after some 300 children.Reuse content