From education to employment

Combining flexible working and childcare to solve the childcare crisis

Jan Van Zyl

Expanding Childcare: Time for children, parents and family learning

A system in crisis

Childcare is on its knees. It is scarce and unaffordable for many. The childcare system doesn’t serve the needs of families – often it doesn’t even enable families to earn an income they can survive on.

Whilst a radical overhaul of the childcare system is needed, flexibility is too often overlooked as being a straightforward part of the solution. Flexible working has the power to unlock the door that shuts out so many – especially women – from the labour market or prevents them from progressing in their careers. And it is a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to solving the UK’s childcare challenges.

Families in stress

Our recent Working Families Index Spotlight Report focused on families on lower incomes – those who have little or no financial room to manoeuvre in order to cope with the current cost of living. The findings were alarming. Four in ten families said they had gone into debt to pay for childcare, essentially meaning they are paying to go to work.

The stress of accessing childcare has resulted in nearly half of parents on lower incomes reporting their mental health was negatively impacted, and three in ten saying it had affected their relationship with their partner. Finding and affording childcare is putting families under immense strain, damaging the quality of family life and eroding their ability to cope.

The childcare barrier

Rather than enabling parents to develop their careers and increase their earnings, childcare – or rather the lack of affordable childcare – acts as a barrier to work.

Over half of parents in our 2022 Working Families Index said the availability of childcare impacts their capacity to work, with mothers twice as likely to be in this position, and seven in ten parents needing to consider childcare options before going for a new job or promotion.

The picture is particularly stark for parents on lower incomes, half of whom have had to reduce their working hours to manage childcare needs, and a fifth having had to quit their job altogether, with women and Black parents most affected.

Combining flexible working and informal childcare

The Government’s proposals in the Spring Budget to increase free childcare to children over 9 months to the start of school at the age of 5 were a step in the right direction, but without adequate funding they may exacerbate the issues for struggling childcare providers and result in higher fees and more nursery closures.

Flexible working can’t (nor should it) replace affordable, quality childcare. Instead, it should be seen as the bedrock of an approach that recognises the complexities of managing work whilst carrying out the incredibly important role of raising children. For many families, flexible working isn’t just an added bonus, it makes work feasible.

Our research showed that families on a lower income who had a flexible request accepted were a third less likely to quit their job to manage childcare, 25% less likely to fall into debt, and half as likely to have had their mental health negatively affected by childcare.

Plus, it enables families to manage tight budgets. Almost a quarter of parents in our research who don’t use formal childcare used flexible working arrangements to share childcare responsibilities between them – a lifeline in a cost-of-living crisis.

The part-time penalty

Of course, many people – mainly women – already work flexibly by working reduced hours. Whilst this can be a positive choice, it can be the result of being denied alternative forms of flexibility – lower-income parents in our study were twice as likely to have their informal flexible request rejected. Part-time workers not only suffer a loss of income, but also a part- time penalty in terms of a lack of progression. To remedy this, we need an abundance of high-quality, flexible roles and dedication to developing and promoting part-time workers.

The right type of flex

To meet the needs of working parents – of whom almost half work in site-based roles or are shift workers – we need to start thinking beyond remote or hybrid working. Job shares, staggered starts, flexitime, and an output-model – there are many examples of innovative practices that can work for people who need to be in a certain location or who work shifts.

There’s no one way to work flexibly; in fact, flexible solutions work best when they are built around the individual needs of the employee and the business needs of the organisation. It’s time we started thinking creatively and collaboratively, and seeing an opportunity to work a different way that’s more inclusive and productive.

Recommendation 1

Employers should make flexible working the default. All jobs should be designed and advertised as flexible, unless there’s a legitimate reason not to.

Recommendation 2

The Government must deliver on their promise to make flexible working a day one right once the Employment Relations Bill has been passed, and should commit to evaluating the impact of the reforms on the availability of flexible working opportunities.

Recommendation 3

The Government needs to ensure that the proposals set out in the Spring Budget are fully funded at sustainable rates which allow childcare providers to meet increased demand.

By Jane van Zyl, Chief Executive, Working Families

Campaign for Learning has released a new series of articles, Expanding Childcare: Time for children, parents and family learning.

See below when each article will be published on FE News:

Part One: Childcare the welfare state – 20th July

1. Will Snell, Chief Executive, The Fairness Foundation

Childcare and a new social contract

2. Anneka Dawson, Head of Pre-16 Education, Ceri Williams, Senior Research Fellow, and Alexandra Nancarrow, Research Fellow, Institute for Employment Studies

The childcare sector: Providers and the workforce in England

Part Two: Childcare and time for work – 21st July

3. Paul Bivand, Independent Policy Analyst

Women, employment and childcare

4. James Cockett, Labour Market Economist and Claire McCartney, Policy Adviser, Resourcing and Inclusion, CIPD

The planned childcare entitlements and progression into work

5. Jane van Zyl, Chief Executive, Working Families

Combining flexible working and childcare to solve the childcare crisis

Part Three: Childcare and time for child development – 24th July

6. Janeen Hayat, Director of Collective Action, Fair Education Alliance

Improving childcare quality to support educational outcomes

7. Megan Jarvie, Head of Coram Family and Childcare

Making a step change to child development through childcare

8. Professor Elizabeth Rapa and Professor Louise Dalton, University of Oxford

Childcare, children’s development and education outcomes

Part Four: Childcare and time for parental engagement – 25th July

9. Lee Elliot Major, Professor of Social Mobility, University of Exeter

The childcare revolution: A new opportunity for parental partnerships in child learning

10. Bea Stevenson, Head of Education, Family Links the Centre for Emotional Health

Childcare and parental engagement in child learning

Part Five: Childcare and time for adult skills – 26th July

11. Simon Ashworth, Policy Director, AELP

The new childcare entitlements and skills bootcamps

12. Sharon Cousins, Vice Principal, Newham College and National Association for Managers of Student Services Executive

The new childcare entitlements and access to further education

13. Susan Pember, Policy Director, HOLEX

A thriving society means linking the new childcare entitlements to adult learning

Part Six: Childcare and time for family learning –

27th July

14. Sam Freedman, Senior Fellow, Institute for Government

The childcare revolution and family learning

15. Susan Doherty, Development Officer – Family Learning, Education Scotland

Family learning and childcare: Lessons from Scotland

28th July

16. Susannah Chambers, Independent Consultant

Bringing childcare and family learning together

17. Henriett Toth, Parent

Family learning and childcare: A personal experience

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