Frustrations of working parents in Wales

On International Women’s Day Wendy Sadler let’s off steam about childcare in the Welsh capital

A widely reported study this week has shown that childcare costs the average family as much as their mortgage. As a result many women (and I’m sure some men too) are giving up work to save themselves money. “Ah well,” the reporters say, “at least the government are funding free child care for three to four year olds”. Well, not really. Not if you are a normal working parent. Not if you live in Cardiff anyway.

Yes, in theory you get 15 hours of government funded nursery care when your child turns three, but only if you apply for them to attend five days a week for three hours each day at one of the specified government nursery school sites.

So let me spell that out. If you work part-time you might work something like three (long) days a week. If I want to take advantage of this ‘free’ space I am faced with the challenge of having to pick up my child in the middle of a working day from one childcare provider and then move them to another nursery in order to benefit.

Now unless you’re extremely lucky and have a paid nursery place that is near enough to a government nursery for you to go and pick your child up, or a member of your family who can do it for you (in which case you probably wouldn’t be paying for a nursery space at all) this doesn’t help. Not only that, it means that on the two precious days you get to spend at home, your child now has to attend nursery school on both those days. This also means that if the child has a regular day with a grandparent (who doesn’t live locally) they can no longer help with looking after them as they can’t necessarily get them to and from the nursery you have a space in.

How many people have a job that allows them to leave work at midday and spend around an hour relocating a three-year-old? Especially when you’re struggling to fit your working week into three days. The idea of a lunch ‘hour’ is highly rare and for someone who runs their own business, or is self-employed (as we know many women are), every hour lost is earning potential lost. And that’s all assuming you have a car at your disposal because doing it on public transport would be virtually impossible.

Infuriating as this is, it gets worse. In England, unlike Wales, the government funding of 15 hours a week can be used against the cost of your normal weekly bill at your chosen nursery without any moving and upsetting of children in the middle of the day. This could basically reduce part-time child-care costs from about £450 a month to £150 a month. That could go a long way towards your mortgage or electricity bill.

Let’s just say that again. Parents working part-time in England could be £300 a month better off than those in an identical situation in Cardiff. Good encouragement to keep workers in Wales? I think not.

As far as my limited economics knowledge goes, I can’t see how offering this flexibility would actually cost the government anything extra. When I inquired about the funding situation for Cardiff at my nursery they told me they have asked and asked for help with this, but the government say they refuse to allow the flexible system to come into place in Cardiff because “so many government funded nursery places are made available and not taken up”. Well, I wonder why that is? Perhaps the system isn’t suiting the people it is meant to be helping? Just a thought.

They have also argued that this isn’t a policy intended to help people access free child care but to enhance the learning offered to three and four year olds. I’ve seen the huge amounts of administration and paperwork my nursery has to do to prove it is teaching the foundation phase to all 3+ year olds, and they are inspected regularly. There is no way that they aren’t teaching the same things. If they didn’t they wouldn’t get their license to operate in Wales. And let’s be honest, they’re only three, so how useful is an early prescriptive curriculum anyway?

Even more unbelievable, if you move a few miles away to Rhondda Cynon Taf, you can currently get full-time nursery school places for three-year olds. Almost worth the extra commute to Cardiff – maybe we should all just move out of the capital…

So, in a week that the Equalities and Human Rights Commission published their report Who Runs Wales? showing how Wales is going backwards in terms of representation of women on boards and in senior positions, could the government please consider for a moment one fairly simple move that could make a massive difference to working parents – women and men – that may just help encourage them to stick with a career rather than chuck it in to save money?

An IWA Trustee Wendy Sadler is Director of Science Made Simple, a company that aims to engage a wider public with science and engineering, and a spin-out from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University.

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