The inadequate childcare offer in Wales has devastating effects for children and their parents, writes Sarah Rees, Head of Oxfam Cymru.
I became a childcare campaigner when I was only a child myself.
I have vivid memories of watching my mum, a single parent on the breadline, racing across town from her part time job to be able to collect my brother on time. If either the colleague taking over her shift, or the bus supposed to bring her home, were late, her whole day would fall apart.
It was a stressful logistical nightmare; and one which, thanks to the sky-high costs of childcare, left her £5 worse off a week than she would have been if she’d given up work, relied on benefits and looked after us herself.
I was an expert in helping women get back to work, yet I couldn’t afford to go back to work myself.
Not much had changed by the time I had my first child ten years ago. I was made redundant from a job I loved while on maternity leave: I was sure it was a case of maternity discrimination, but I didn’t have the money or the inclination to spend those precious initial weeks and months away from my new baby fighting it through the courts.
After six months, I returned to work, starting my own social enterprise focused on women’s empowerment. But when my second child came along, I knew I’d have to wind it up: I just wouldn’t be making enough money in order to pay for childcare for two children.
It was a devastating irony: I was an expert in helping women get back to work, yet I couldn’t afford to go back to work myself.
It wasn’t just a blow to my career, but to my mental health and independence too. My husband and I sat down together and went through our bank statements, line by line, deciding what was essential expenditure and what wasn’t. It’s incredibly disempowering – and for some women less fortunate than I am, incredibly dangerous – to be suddenly financially wholly dependent on your other half.
Since my children were born, the Welsh Government has introduced two key childcare schemes. The first is its flagship Childcare Offer, which provides up to 30 hours of funded childcare for three- and four-year-olds whose parents are working and earning above a minimum threshold. As any parent who’s tried accessing the Offer knows, it’s fraught with complexity.
Syniadau uchelgeisiol, awdurdodol a mentrus.
Ymunwch â ni i gyfrannu at wneud Cymru gwell.
Seemingly in complete isolation, the Welsh Government also provides limited childcare support – 2.5 hours a day – for a small number of low-income parents living in specific local authorities via its Flying Start programme.
Confusingly, because of the different objectives and target parent groups of the schemes, a child supported through Flying Start is unlikely to then be eligible for the Childcare Offer when they turn three.
Bluntly put, it’s an incredibly complex system, and today, Oxfam Cymru is lifting the lid on over 300 parents’ experiences of the Welsh childcare system.
Our new report, Little Steps, Big Struggles, Childcare in Wales, lays bare the fact that across Wales, eye watering childcare costs are either trapping parents in poverty or leaving them on the precipice of poverty as they are forced to make impossible choices about their career and future plans to have more children.
Our findings make for grim, though familiar, reading. Two-thirds of parents who responded to our survey report having to reduce their working hours due to a lack of childcare, with over half admitting that after paying for childcare costs, it doesn’t actually make financial sense for them to go to work; just like it was for my mum 35 years ago.
The knock-ons are particularly stark for women. Exorbitant childcare costs, on top of the spiralling cost of living, mean that work simply doesn’t pay for countless mums across the country.
Childcare is basic economic infrastructure, which, if designed and delivered well, can help the Welsh Government deliver on both its anti-poverty and gender equality ambitions.
As a result, women are forced into a vicious cycle of poverty. They spend years in the employment wilderness, and subsequent lifetimes making less money in less senior jobs than men before being faced with a pension black hole as a result of years of having no, or low, earnings.
With the UK Government recently promising more funded childcare support in England, frustrations in Wales are growing, with the Welsh Government yet to publish the full details of its own future childcare plans.
Two years ago, despite the illogical mismatch between the Childcare Offer and Flying Start, Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru promised to expand funded childcare to all two-year-olds in Wales through their Cooperation Agreement.
It remains unclear how and when this pledge will be delivered more widely, beyond the extension of the existing Flying Start scheme which has very strict eligibility criteria.
What’s abundantly clear is that it’s no good simply rolling out an already broken scheme further. It’s time Ministers created a new Advisory Group, pulling together external experts, in order to have an honest conversation about what’s needed and to guide the development of a clear plan for a new, fairer and more comprehensive high-quality childcare system.
Childcare is basic economic infrastructure, which, if designed and delivered well, can help the Welsh Government deliver on both its anti-poverty and gender equality ambitions. But right now, Wales’s childcare system does neither.
It’s not good enough to rely on the hollow adage that work is the best route out of poverty. As Oxfam Cymru’s research shows; for too many mothers across Wales, that simply isn’t the case: it wasn’t for my mum, it wasn’t for me, and if nothing changes soon, it won’t be for my daughter either. This is a campaign that parents, and our children, simply can’t afford to lose.