Blog by Laura Cooney, Communications Officer, Opportunity Now & Race for Opportunity
Last month the Association of Teachers and Lecturers published research highlighting that children as young as four were spending up to ten hours a day at school, with more than half of teachers believing that children were now spending far less time with their families than 20 years ago. The vast majority of teachers surveyed (94%) blamed this increase on parents working longer, with three-quarters also suggesting changes to parents’ or carers’ work-life balance played a role. Although ministers have called for nurseries and schools to open longer in order to help parents work, teachers have expressed concern that this could potentially be damaging to the lives of children and parents.
Finding suitable and affordable childcare can often hold parents, particularly mothers, back from progressing in their careers, or even from returning to work at all. The World Mothers Index recently listed the UK as the 26th best place to be a mother, with a lack of available and affordable childcare cited as one of the main reasons for the relatively low ranking. This was reflected in the responses to Opportunity Now’s Project 28-40 survey, where 20 per cent of mothers who had left work said high childcare costs had played a role in their decision. By contrast, the top ranking countries in the World Mothers Survey were more likely to offer universal state-funded childcare to all families.
As part of Project 28-40, Opportunity Now asked working parents if it would be helpful for schools to open from 8 AM to 6 PM for childcare before and after school. Over two-thirds (68%) of men and women agreed, including 70% of mothers. This response suggests that ‘wraparound’ childcare could potentially help more women and men work full-time once they have children, and hopefully act as a boost to their career progression. It could also reduce the need for flexible working, which many Project 28-40 respondents said was perceived negatively within their organisation. Additionally, a 2008 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that ‘children whose parents are well qualified and working (in any job as opposed to the base category of not working), particularly in higher level occupations and/or in construction and the public sector, and working full-time, are less likely to be in poverty, especially if both parents are working.’
However, although making childcare more widely available and affordable could help many women continue to progress in their careers by allowing them to work full-time, it’s important to not see this as a one-size-fits-all solution. Of Project 28-40 respondents who had left work, 54% of mothers said it was because they wanted a better work-life balance. And this isn’t just something that applies to women with children. 48% of non-parents who weren’t working also cited better work-life balance as their reason for leaving their previous role, whilst a Working Families report earlier this year found that fathers aged 26-35 found their time with their family most impinged upon by work.
Ultimately, the decision as to whether longer childcare hours or more flexible working is a better solution depends on the individual. But what’s important is that they have that choice to work in a way that lets them get the job done and helps them balance their career with family life and other interests. Project 28-40 has made a number of recommendations about how this could be achieved – now it’s up to employers to take them forward.