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

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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.

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