We can't afford confusion at the heart of the childcare revolution

Related Topics
IN AN ideal world childcare would be a sizzling issue. We would eagerly await pronouncements from on high about the new National Childcare Strategy. We would debate the new Green Paper in pubs all over the land. We would imagine a brave new world in which the majority of women worked and therefore the majority of children were looked after by people who were not related to them and we might realise that this is not in fact the future, it's the way we live now.

In the real world however childcare is regarded as a boring women's issue, even though it is one that is central to New Labour, New Deal politicians. People who have never spent one week in sole charge of their own children debate childcare at an entirely abstract level.

Children are our future, they repeatedly intone. We will all reap the long-term benefits of good quality childcare. Meanwhile most working mothers organise a patchwork of childcare arrangements, some formal, much of it informal involving relatives and friends. Those who can afford it, fret about the quality of childcare that they are purchasing; those who cannot, feel that they have no choice whatsoever in the matter.

Yet, these two words, "quality" and "choice", are part of the New Labour mantra and are used over and over again in the new green paper Meeting the Childcare Challenge. Of course this is right. Quality and choice are not concepts that anyone should argue with. The question remains: how is all this to be done.

Childcare, as Harriet Harman points out, is as important as economic policy: "It is part of the infrastructure that enables women to work." Actually a national strategy on childcare is economic policy. The economy needs more women in the workplace to stop it stagnating.

We are already halfway there. We have 62 per cent of mothers in paid work, and 51 per cent of those will have children under five. Clearly this government has decided to build on the arrangements that most women already have in place rather than radically re-vamp them. Childcare is essentially, even when no money changes hands, a privatised business with individuals making their own, often ingenious, arrangements.

As someone who for years relied on a network of friends and neighbours, I am amazed that most women manage as well as they do. I say "most women", not to be nasty to men (God forbid), but because even when men do look after children the responsibility for organising child care still falls to women.

Indeed the recent EU summit in Belfast of European Ministers for Women concluded that there must be further conferences to find out how to get men more involved in childcare, which is still regarded even in Scandinavian countries as a chore rather than a pleasure. Everyone who has done it knows surely that it is both.

Our national childcare strategy doesn't address such fundamental cultural difficulties. Although it does accept that the extended family has broken down and consequently women find themselves less and less able to rely on grandparents. Meeting the Childcare Challenge takes it for granted that most women with children want and need to get jobs. Childcare has become important not because of female demands - remember one of the early and laughable demands of the Women's Liberation Movement was 24-hour creches - but because of economic necessity .

We now need a coherent national policy and the one delivered by Harman promises a childcare audit to find out what is available; a new childcare tax credit; 50,000 more childcare places; pounds 170m of lottery money to fund new out-of-school centres; as well as a free "education" place for every four-year-old by September this year; and pounds 20m to help train childcare workers.

This is good news. Whether however this will make us a more child-friendly country is open to discussion. There appears to be a contradiction at the heart of this government's attitude to childcare. On one hand, we all need it in order to work, work being the New Labour salvation, yet those whose work is looking after children will continue to be amongst the lowest-paid in the country. Those who are thinking of going into the childcare business must rely only on the promise of a minimum wage.

Where exactly are the new childcare workers going to come from? Well, there are a load of lone mothers out there who are desperate to get back to work. As soon as they can find cheap enough childcare for their own children they can take jobs looking after other people's. The Catch 22 of women on low wages paying other women even lower wages will continue. Childminders know that they cannot price themselves out of the market and the market will dictate that childcare remains a thoroughly low-paid and under-valued female occupation.

Doubtless, the middle classes will be impressed by this government's commitment to the regulation of child-minders and nannies. Not an Islington evening goes by without a mini-moral panic about the latest domestic crisis. We now live with a huge servant/personal services class.

Far worse than the prospect of an abused child is the spectre that haunts working parents; the under-stimulated child, the child who watches TV instead of being educated with plastic shapes. Such people pay their cleaners more than their child-minders but expect those responsible for their children to behave as play therapists, pre-school teachers and cooks all at the same time.

There is some confusion at the heart of government debate about what childcare means. Childcare is used at times to mean simply baby-sitting, at others to mean parenting and then again to mean education. After-school clubs are set up not only to prevent the phenomenon of latchkey kids but to encourage them to do their homework.

The distinction between simply looking after children and educating them is being blurred. If from September this year every four year old is guaranteed a place in education, then effectively we are talking about our kids starting school at the age of four rather than five, which is very early compared to our European counterparts.

All of this amounts to a sea-change in our attitude to women and work, one that is being recognised by the Government. The old anxieties about the effects on children of having working mothers have been swept aside, even by those who elsewhere talk of family values. It is simply assumed that childcare has become a parental right rather than a parental option - and this is truly radical. Access to childcare changes individual women's lives; collectively, this will change all our lives.

What is going on in playrooms and nurseries may not appear sexy but it should be. This is the revolution in our midst and one day we will look back and wonder what mothers did in the days before they went to work.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Could Ukip turncoat Amjad Bashir be the Churchill of his day?

Matthew Norman
King Abdullah made Saudi Arabia prosperous but had absolute disregard for what liberal Westerners would view as basic human rights  

The media cannot ignore tricky questions when someone dies - but it must stick to the facts

Will Gore
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us