Eight radical solutions to the childcare issue

By Frances Cronin
BBC News

media captionParents have different experiences, with Zahra a mum of two, struggling to cope with her toddler.

The school holidays in England and Wales are approaching, prompting headaches for many parents. But what are the most radical solutions for the wider problem of how childcare should be organised for all those who want or need to work?

The average cost of childcare for each baby under two in the UK is more than £5,000 ($7,800) a year , and with nursery costs in some parts of the UK rising more than twice as fast as family incomes, some believe there is a childcare crisis in the UK.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has pledged that childcare is the Coalition's highest priority social policy , but what are the truly radical options? And can the UK learn from countries elsewhere?

Bring your baby to work

In the UK a quarter of women who go on maternity leave do not return to work - this means significant costs to companies in terms of recruiting and training their replacements.

In the US a growing number of companies allow parents to bring their babies to work, and care for them at their desk. Paid maternity leave is not a legal right in the US and many mothers go back to work after just a few weeks.

Babies at work schemes - there are currently more than 170 companies participating - are seen as a possible solution.

The Arizona State Department of Health is one of the companies participating. Will Humble, the director of the agency, looks at it as a business decision.

"We've invested a lot of effort in that middle management team and a lot of them are women in their thirties and they're having babies and we can't afford to lose them," he says.

He hopes these skilled workers will steer the company in the future as senior managers and believes it has not caused a significant loss of productivity.

"What we gain is a long term increase in our productivity and we build and continue to reinforce the commitment we have with our employees, which helps us in the long run to retain those critical employees that may have made another choice."

But could this work in the UK? Minicab firm Addison Lee have tried the scheme, with their experiences filmed for the BBC.

After one week some of the parents could not keep up with their workload, there were screaming fits that disrupted calls and one important fare left waiting - but Managing Director Liam Griffin, who was initially a sceptic, admits there has been an upside.

"There has been a lot of positivity around the programme as a whole," he says. "The loyalty and enthusiasm from the other staff and the morale that's come with it and the uplift in that, that's had significant benefits."

The competitive and testosterone-fuelled sales department was the least welcoming to the children. They had to cope with 15-month-old Tanisha.

As the tantrums subsided, and Tanisha settled into a routine, Tyrone, office manager of the sales team, admits that opinions had softened towards her.

"Some of the guys are commenting that they like the vibe when she's in here - it mellows things down a little bit. She's like a mini member of the team."

But Peter Moss, professor of early childhood provision at the University of London's Institute of Education, sees schemes like this as a gimmick.

"There is a solution - the Nordic countries cracked it 40 years ago," he says.

"They get well paid parental leave for 12-15 months before they go to their local authority for their subsidised childcare place which they get."

They fund this by paying higher taxes, but he believes it is worth it. But would a government want to sign up to a scheme that meant people paying higher taxes?

A national childcare service

image captionSome people argue costs should be uniform

The UK has a National Health Service, why not a National Childcare Service? It would be unlike the NHS in that it would be paid for, but the prices would be uniform across the country.

"We should care as much about childcare as part of the infrastructure that gets people to work as we do about roads and public transport for commuters," says Hackney councillor Luke Akehurst.

Writing on the Labourlist blog he proposes a National Childcare Service "with nationally set standards and prices".

"Why should childcare be so variable in cost, quality and availability? We would not tolerate this chaos with health or school education."

But Dr Christine Skinner from York University thinks this "sounds very expensive from a government perspective."

And she says it is very different sector to the NHS. "What's not clear is the institutional and physical structures this would involve - with the NHS you think of GP surgeries, you know who your GP is. But with childcare there's a mixed economy - in the home, in schools, private care and so on."

Free universal childcare

But some people go even further and suggest there should be universal free childcare for all.

The Institute for Public Policy Research think tank has proposed this. Dalia Ben-Galim, associate director for family, community and work, argued in the paper Making the case for universal childcare that such a policy for pre-school aged children would generate a net return to the government.

They calculated this return at £20,050 over four years - in terms of tax revenue minus the cost of childcare for every woman who returns to full-time employment after one year of maternity leave.

This can be seen in practice in Vienna, Austria , where all day care is free for every child up to the age of six.

But would any government be willing to take on such a big shift to state subsidisation and risk the numbers not working out?

A network of intergenerational centres

image captionStorytellers on tap?

As a long term solution to the cost of funding care homes for the elderly in the future is also a problem, how about combining them and having intergenerational day care centres, where you can take both children and parents?

A growing number of these exist in the US already, where it is thought 44% of the population face the challenge of looking after both elderly parents and young children.

The combination of care could bring costs down, according to the organisation Generations United . But those who advocate it usually dwell on the potential it has for aiding development in children .

A study by researchers at the Marilyn and Gordon Macklin Intergenerational Institute in Ohio, suggested it led to advanced social development in children and a report by the United States Department of Health and Human Services found combining facilities and programmes "could increase the level and quality of service".

The ultimate workplace creche

In World War II the Kaiser shipyards in the US established pioneering company-sponsored childcare centres. They were in operation 24 hours a day, had a nurse on site for any ill children, as well as providing hot meals during the day.

In their book, Beginnings and Beyond, Ann Miles Gordon and Kathryn Williams Browne described the scale of the centres that were the biggest in the world at the time.

"They were models of child-centred construction, built around a courtyard with wading pools. The playrooms branching off of the courtyards had large windows and window seats that allowed children to watch the construction taking place in the yards."

They were opened to ensure the company had the workforce to build ships for WWII and were closed after the war ended, but could this large scale, open all hours creche be a solution?

In the UK many larger employers provide on site creches, notes Skinner.

"It's fine if you work for that sort of employer. But of course it's big employers we're talking about - call centres, insurance companies and so on. Not everyone works for companies like that.

"In the UK children aged three-to-four are entitled to early education and parents might want that provided nearer the home."

But many large businesses do not have creches, or have closed them because of the cost. Without any requirement to do so, the decision on whether to have childcare is a business one.

For most small businesses the costs would be too punitive to even consider.

People should form collectives

In the past communities came together to look after the children if their parents were not available - so why not have childcare collectives put together by volunteers?

In Sweden, parental co-operatives run many pre-schools, and they have a long history in the country . They are organised and staffed by the parents who use the service. It is advocated by some in the US and Canada.

But the idea has echoes of the spirit of the coalition government's "Big Society" agenda where regulatory barriers are removed to encourage voluntary groups and communities to take action.

China Martens, founder of Kidz City, a anarchist-feminist collective in Baltimore, developed a model for organising such co-operatives . Martens suggests it is not just the responsibility of the parents but the community as a whole, including those without children.

"The informal care sector is essential," says Dr Eva Lloyd, reader in early childhood at the University of East London and co-author of Childcare Markets: Can they deliver an equitable service?

"We've always had this. This issue would be how do you control costs and so on."

"What you find in the US is that there are a lot of interesting initiatives like this but no coherence because there's very little co-ordination at federal level."

And Skinner believes creating a wave of such collectives would not be so simple.

"This seems to be formalising something that exists informally. The trouble is the quality issue. What would be the quality control?"

Other obvious barriers are regulatory - volunteers might need to agree to criminal record checks and there might need to be some form of inspection regime. All of this would cost money.

All schools should run from dawn til dusk

One potential solution already exists in every community. Schools sit idle for much of the year.

Why not put them to more use and make them open from dawn until dusk, possibly housing a baby childcare centre?

Under the last government every school in the UK had to extend their hours, with 25,000 open from 8am-6pm and required to have a range of services to cater to the children's pre and post school needs.

Sure Start centres open from 8am-6pm but there has been speculation that cuts could cause some to close . Their budget has not been ring fenced, but Children's Minister Sarah Teather has said there are enough funds to keep existing centres open .

"In the Netherlands they compelled all schools to offer out of hours provision," says Lloyd. "Obviously, there's an issue about costs and margins.

"Opinion is divided quite sharply about whether children should spend all day in school or whether they should have a bit of a change. That's a personal thing."

The status quo

Many people would dispute there even was a problem with childcare provision.

How to look after children could be left completely to individuals. If they choose to have children, some would argue, then the responsibility for organising and paying for childcare lies solely at their door.

And is there anything fundamentally wrong - or economically unsustainable - with the idea of one parent staying at home?

Personal finance writer Brian Reed advocates the many benefits of one parent staying at home as he believes it makes financial sense. He is writing about the US, but his arguments can translate to the UK.

But Skinner believes it is unworkable for many.

"Most families have one and a half earners in the family to sustain their standard of living," she says. "One full time earner is not going to be enough unless they are a very high earner - for most people that's not an option."

And she points out many would assume it would be the woman staying at home.

"Are we saying women are only fit to care for children under five?

"But there is a case for a more equal share of the child care responsibilities. Why not have both parents working three-quarters time - that would make up one and a half salaries."

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