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Last Updated: Friday, 15 August, 2003, 08:56 GMT 09:56 UK
Six Forum: Childcare
Lisa Harker from the Daycare Trust answered your questions in the interactive Six Forum.



Children who are cared for by friends and relatives while their parents work can suffer "significant ill-effects" to their development, a new report shows.

Researchers at Bristol University also found that children whose mothers go back to full-time work before they are 18 months old are slower at developing basic learning skills.

However, the cost of childcare can be too much for some parents - summertime play schemes cost as much as 135 a week.

Furthermore, there is only one childcare place for every five children under the age of eight, according to the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).

Who is the best person to care for your children? Can you get help to pay for childcare? What are your rights?


Transcript


Manisha Tank:

Hello and welcome to the BBC Six Forum, I'm Manisha Tank. Babies left with relatives become slower learners at school than those who receive paid childcare. So say researchers from Bristol University who've been looking into the effects of mothers going back into full-time work. But childcare spaces are scarce and many parents find they can't afford nurseries. So what are your options and how does going back to work affect your kids.

Here to answer your questions is Lisa Harker, chair of the trustees at the Daycare Trust who joins us from our Oxford studio. Good to see you Lisa. We've had lots of questions about the subject, many of them ranging from - why not leave kids with the relatives, what are the costs of childcare, do employers do enough. But we'll begin with a question from Gillian McShane, Dartmouth: I leave my daughters (aged 5 and 3) with their grandmother because I know I can trust her. I couldn't leave my girls with someone I didn't know, but this report has got me worried.


Lisa Harker:

Well parents really shouldn't be too worried. Most parents do rely on what we call informal childcare - that's childcare with a relative like a grandparent or perhaps with a friend. In fact grandmothers are the most commonly used form of childcare, if I could put it like that.

An important thing is that study shows that formal childcare - paid for childcare with trained professionals - is a better quality. Now that shouldn't be a surprise to us, that's about investing in a very high standard of care that we expect for children. In fact, the study shows, that if you combined good quality care with some care by a friend or a relative, then that was the very best option of all for children. So this isn't saying to parents, abandon your current arrangements. But it is saying that as a country we ought to be investing in the kinds of good quality childcare that produced the best outcomes for children.


Manisha Tank:

Rebecca D, Maidenhead: Most mums I know would love to stay home and look after their children, but can't afford this option. Childcare costs invariably mean you do rely on relatives. Surely this provides a good home from home environment?


Lisa Harker:

Well that's absolutely true that most people feel they don't have a choice whatsoever and that's the most important thing I think for all parents to be able to choose the best option for them and their children. About two-thirds of mothers return to work within the first year and that's very unusual by European standards. Most other countries have a long period of paid parental leave where people can step out of the labour market for a while and look after their kids. So choice is absolutely crucial.

The cost of childcare is very prohibitive and in this country you're looking at typical costs of about 128 a week for a nursery place and about 118 a week for a childminding place and that adds up to more than 6,500 a year - that's a huge sum of money for people to be able to afford. And even though there is some help with childcare costs through the childcare tax credit, only a small proportion of families are currently claiming that credit. So yes, at the moment their simply isn't the choice that parents ought to have for their children.


Manisha Tank:

Vedinee Pattar, Pimlico, London: Why is UK more expensive than the other European countries in terms of childcare?


Lisa Harker:

Well there's a very simple answer to that - we haven't, in this country, invested in childcare through public funding in the same way that other countries have done and we've got a lot to catch up.

I've just been to visit Denmark, for example, where they've had for 30 years a guarantee of a childcare place for every child and parents there pay no more than 30% of the cost of a place, whereas here parents are paying more like 75% of the cost of a place on average. So we have a lot of catching up to do and the only way to do that would be to invest in childcare in the same way that we do with education and health through a tax system.


Manisha Tank:

Let's go into a little more detail on this issue of cost. We've received an e-mail from Ruben C and N B Smales Daycare in Nottingham who ask: How can childcare providers be expected to offer low-price, high standards of care when staffing costs are high and there's no money to help new nurseries sustain their growth potential?


Lisa Harker:

The cost of running a nursery is very expensive, particularly the start-up costs where you're trying to set the building and the provision inside the building. Then of course staffing costs are your main costs. In fact we don't pay childcare workers very much in this country and so although the costs are huge by proportion - in fact we ought to be paying more if anything. The question then lies on who should pay the cost of childcare - if parents can't more we certainly won't expect providers to be cutting back their costs in any way. The only other answer really is to bear the costs more evenly through the population through paying perhaps through our tax system for more investment in childcare across the board.


Manisha Tank:

David, Crawley: Could more be done to encourage employers to provide creche/nursery facilities?
How does Britain's employers fare when it comes childcare?


Lisa Harker:

There is a very low level of employer-provided childcare in the country. A lot of other European have very low levels as well but that's partly because there's a lot of publicly funded places and employers don't to provide extra places. There is much more that employers can do. In fact the Government has been looking at this and it has currently got some consultation of proposals underway to look at how they can provide some tax incentives for employers to perhaps more generously invest in childcare for their employees. Certainly by clubbing together by employers in their locality joining together and looking for ways of investing in local nurseries, for example, employers can do an awful lot.


Manisha Tank:

Meanwhile the Government, you mentioned before, could do a bit more. Mark, Hammersmith says: The Government says there is only one childcare place for every five children under the age of eight. What is being done to rectify this?


Lisa Harker:

The Government have got a national childcare strategy underway and indeed for the last five years we've had more investment than we've ever seen in childcare in this country. As I've said before, we have a long, long way to catch up. So part of this is about sustained and increased investment over time. I hope that the Government will perhaps take the opportunity in the run up to the next election to really put this on a priority list for them. I think that this is what parents are asking for - more investment in services to give them genuine choice as to whether they return to work and when they return to work. It's about political priorities ultimately. I hope that that's likely to happen in the coming years.


Manisha Tank:

Deborah, London has sent a text message in: How young should a child be to start nursery and what childcare is best for a 7 month-old?


Lisa Harker:

Well there's no cut and fast rule, I'm afraid. A lot of it has to rest with the parents' judgement about what's best for their child. There are plenty of guides that parents can look to, to discuss with different childcare providers about the type of childcare that they provide and for them to think about whether it's good enough quality and whether it will suit their particular circumstances. So you should contact your local childcare information centre. You should look to organisations like Daycare Trust - we produce many guides for parents - and really to talk to people, talk to childminders, talk to your local nursery, talk to your friends about the kinds of options about the kinds of options available to you and really think about what you feel will suit you and your child best. I'm afraid there's no one-size fits all - children are very different. The most important thing is that you really think about the quality of the service that's available.


Manisha Tank:

Susan, Bristol asks: Justine, my 7 month-old seems to enjoy childcare and I would say that he is flourishing. But signs should I look out for which might indicate that there were problems?


Lisa Harker:

It sounds like this parent is doing absolutely the right thing to look out for whether this child is flourishing. You can tell if a child is perhaps very quiet and subdued and coming back not wanting to go back into the childcare facility. Go and have a look at the facility. See what the children do during the day. Ask the staff about the way they organise activities, whether they can report back at the end of the day about what your child has been up to. Think about how much they spend time sitting reading, doing play activities. Just watch your child to see whether they are happy in that environment because a very good quality childcare which is a very stimulating and free environment to learn is a very, very good place for a child to be.


Manisha Tank:

Jay Stuart e-mails from Northern Ireland: Do you think that society pressurises women to return to work soon after childbirth by portraying housewives as second-class to those who are earning?


Lisa Harker:

Well I do think we've had a very unfortunate debate in this country where we seem to have polarised the options for parents - you are either a stay-at-home mum, in which your case you are devalued in society. Or you are a return to work mum, in which case you seem to be ignoring the best interests of your child. Now neither of those things are true - for many parents it's about combining both of those things - working part-time or perhaps taking some leave arrangements for a period of time. I think if we move to the sort of situation where mums and dads can have much more flexible working arrangements and there's the opportunity to use good quality childcare, then it's best for parents and it's certainly is best for children.


Manisha Tank:

Excellent advice there for us all. Lisa Harker of the Daycare Trust, thanks very much for joining us. That's it for now for this Six Forum. We did have hundreds of e-mails and I'm only sorry that we couldn't get through them all. But I do hope that you'll join us again next time. Goodbye.




SEE ALSO:
New fears over working mothers
13 Aug 03  |  Bristol/Somerset
Meeting the childcare challenge
23 Jul 03  |  Business
Holiday childcare costs 'soar'
15 Jul 03  |  Business
Working mothers 'too stressed'
24 Jul 03  |  Business


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