As July 19th draws nearer, so too does the end of the official guidance to work from home if you can. The predicted move back to offices (for a few days a week at least) is much anticipated by central London’s shops and restaurants, desperate for footfall to increase. But for London’s working parents it will represent a new chapter in an often years-long saga; what to do about childcare?
Issues with childcare are not new. For years, the UK has been put to shame by our European counterparts when it comes to childcare provision and subsidy. Women (and it is predominantly women) are regularly forced out of the workforce because the costs of childcare outstrip their salaries. Finding and affording the right childcare is a headache most parents will be all too familiar with.
But the pandemic has turned our national childcare challenge into a full blown crisis.
As many as two-thirds of London’s nurseries are now at risk of closure. Many were operating on thin margins pre-pandemic, but after a year of enforced shut-downs and reduced numbers of children, set against the fixed overheads of rented space and full-time staff, huge numbers are unable to continue. Distressingly, those in the most deprived parts of the capital are most at risk.
At the same time, we have more parents (disproportionately mothers) than ever before being forced to give up work in order to make looking after children financially or practically viable. Long stints of homeschooling, reduced access to childcare options, and an outdated but pervasive resistance from employers to offer flexible working arrangements are wreaking havoc on women’s careers. A recent campaign from Pregnant Then Screwed found that as many as 2 in 3 working mothers reduce their hours, change roles or stop working altogether thanks to the huge costs of childcare. Covid-19 been the straw that has broken the proverbial back.
This isn’t sustainable and it’s hurting London. We can’t have a thriving workforce if huge swathes of our talent pool are locked out of it; unable to make having a family and a career a viable option. And we can’t get people back to the office if affordable, high-quality childcare isn’t on hand. If we want the capital and the UK as a whole to bounce back, we need to fix this.
With more local, affordable childcare we could bolster our workforce and redress a gender inequality that’s deeply damaging. And, by ensuring more childcare practitioners are available to provide a better quality of early years education, we’d also be setting up the next generation of Londoners to thrive.
Early years education is incredibly powerful; the development gap between disadvantaged children and their better off peers at the age 5 persists throughout their entire education journey. This is a gap that can only be bridged by improving the quality of our early years provision.
There needs to be thorough approach to improving childcare provisions, whether that’s childminders or nurseries, from both policymakers and employers. Employers must play their role too by exploring grants for employees to spend on childcare, the provision on-site childminders, and enhancing their maternity, paternity and flexible working policies to ensure parents are empowered to bring their best to work without compromising on their personal lives.
Good quality childcare is the foundation of better gender equality in the workplace and the cornerstone of childhood development. These are two things that could not be more important when it comes to safeguarding our current economy and future proofing the fortunes of the next generation. If we want to build back better and see London roar once more, we have to start with childcare.