This week the Liberal Democrats made their play for much-coveted parent votes, pledging to extend free childcare to all two-year-olds.
The importance of accessible and affordable childcare can’t be underestimated. Without it, many parents, and particularly single parents, can’t go out to work; either because they can’t afford to, or because there is no-one else to look after their children if they do.
This is something that politicians of all parties have clearly begun to grasp, and each party has its own set of solutions:
While in office the coalition government has extended 15 hours of free early years education to disadvantaged two-year-olds; has introduced a bill to deliver tax-free childcare worth up to £2,000 per child each year for middle to high earners from autumn 2015; and plans to increase childcare support for parents on universal credit to up to 85 per cent of costs from April 2016.
The Liberal Democrats have this week pledged to extend 15 hours of free childcare to all two year olds, trailed as the first in a series of steps towards offering free childcare to all working parents from the end of parental leave until children start school.
The Labour Party has committed to increase free early years education for three and four year-olds from 15 hours to 25 hours per week for working parents; and has also pledged wraparound childcare for all children from 8am to 6pm in primary schools.
While these policies will help parents balance work and family life, there is still a way to go to reach the vision of free, universal childcare that Gingerbread and other family organisations believe government should be working towards.
All parties heavily focus on pre-school childcare, with none specifically addressing provision for children aged 11 and over. A further notable omission from party pledges to date: holiday childcare; any parent emerging from the other side of summer holidays this week will tell you this is impossible to ignore.
School holidays take up a quarter of the year – a massive 13 weeks in total; they affect free early years education for pre-schoolers (which is available term-time only) as well as school children; and in the last five years availability of holiday childcare has halved, while prices have risen by around a fifth.
At Gingerbread we work with single parents, who are particularly reliant on childcare. They can’t do the "shift-parenting" that couples can, for example, taking turns to take annual leave from work over the summer.
This summer we surveyed more than 600 single parents about their experiences of holiday childcare; and the financial and emotional toll it takes was clear to see. A third (34 per cent) told us that they had cut back on spending on food or other essentials, with one parent adding that she had been eating just one meal a day because otherwise she couldn’t afford the food and childcare her children needed over the holiday.
Many more told us they’d driven hundreds of miles to deliver children to stay with grandparents for weeks on end, some even flying in relatives from abroad to provide childcare, while others said they had no choice but to leave their job.
Ultimately, we would like to see all political parties set out their roadmap towards universal free childcare for all 52 weeks of the year, to provide parents with the support they need to balance work and care, in itself vital to increase parental employment from which we all benefit economically. We believe any strategy must include: engaging with employers to increase flexible working; extending the right to request flexible working from job offer onwards; considering using school buildings as childcare facilities; and supporting schools who want to provide childcare during the holidays.
For 13 weeks of the year, single and couple parents are faced with incredibly difficult choices about their children, their job and their finances. It’s time politicians offered some solutions.
Caroline Davey is director of policy, advice and communications at Gingerbread, the single parent family charity