School's out for summer. For working parents facing diminishing childcare provision, the nightmare begins. According to a survey released yesterday by Daycare Trust, just one in three local councils is fulfilling its legal obligation to ensure sufficient holiday childcare in their area. Budgets have been slashed – more than half of local authorities in England have suffered from "efficiency" cuts to summer schemes – and costs to parents have risen.
"As a result," says Anand Shukla, Daycare Trust's chief executive, "more parents than ever will face a juggling act to ensure their children are looked after this summer."
On the same day, the Coalition's childcare commission – an initiative announced with last month – has urged the public to come forward with suggestions on how to salvage a system stretched to breaking point.
"I know hard-working families are struggling with the costs of childcare at the moment," said David Cameron, "I urge the everyday experts – the parents, childminders and nursery owners – to get in touch with ideas for how we can make the system better and more affordable."
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg hammered the point home that suggestions involving increased government expenditure and/or systemic re-structuring of state childcare provision were unlikely to make the cut. "We want views on how we can continue to provide first-class care without breaking the bank or being too complicated," he said.
You might think the "everyday experts" have enough on their hands. Mums sprinting between workplace and daycare might reasonably wonder what these suggestible types in Whitehall are paid for.
Commissioners are, presumably, in possession of basic facts. They must know, because the Government recently told us, that economic recovery depends on more mothers returning to work. They will be aware that with 60 per cent of mothers in employment, our "strike rate" is poor compared to other developed nations. They will know that across the 34 countries making up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, childcare costs an average 12 per cent of income (for two parents on average wages). In Britain the figure is 27 per cent.
A commission in command of the figures will spot the relation between high childcare costs and low numbers of working mothers. Our "listening ministers" will be interested to know that 42 per cent of British women who work part-time say they do so because of childcare responsibilities. And they should not be surprised if many of the "everyday experts" contributing to the debate in the next few weeks turn out to be parents of disabled children, older children or children who live in rural communities – all of whom are under-served by current holiday childcare provision.
What then, given the Government's avowed intention of keeping its hand in its pocket, might we suggest?
If more mothers work, there will be more tax revenue. Would it be "too complicated" for Nick Clegg to ask someone with a calculator to run these figures against the cost of appropriately subsidised childcare? Maybe the commission was thinking of some more "community based" solutions. It cannot be long before the Government renews its commitment to grandparents and their vital role in family life. But with retirement age nosing ever northwards, the involvement of grandparents in childcare – assuming they are a) willing and b) near enough to help out – is not a long term solution.
The problem, as identified by Daycare Trust, peaks in school holidays. Families with two children can expect to pay, on average, £1,200 for "holiday cover". In parts of London, this rises to £400 per child, per week. The Gordian Knot approach would be to keep schools open. It wouldn't necessarily entail a restructuring of term times, but there is an argument for using premises and facilities already in place for state subsidised "summer school".
This practical plan was always intended as part of the Schools Extended Services programme, a Labour initiative which fell in the first swathe of Coalition cuts, but a devolved version – possibly with neighbouring schools sharing out the weeks – may yet prove cost effective.
It is to be hoped that the "everyday experts" will come up with a plan, since ministers appear to be terminally stumped on the issue.
If Government is serious about wanting to know our opinion on the matter, it had better be ready to duck.