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Childcare provision is not geared to realities of modern working life


For most of the growing number of women who go out to work, organising childcare for young children is a highly complicated process in which the slightest disruption is likely to cause a crisis, according to new research sponsored by the ESRC.

Among big city-dwellers, pre-school arrangements - even for the most affluent households - involve careful scheduling in time and travel, typically using three or four different types of regular care, says the study, led at University College, London, by Professor Linda McDowell. For many families, jobs have become increasingly insecure, temporary or casual, and the hours demanded have either increased or become less regular in terms of day and night shifts and the working week, says the report. The growing dominance of low-paid service sector work makes it increasingly difficult to have reasonable living standards from a single wage, so forcing many working class couples to have two or more jobs in order to survive.

This study examined, among other things, who does what in the home when both partners are working. And it investigated how childcare is arranged and managed if parents work shifts. Focussing on younger families in two major centres – London and Manchester – the study found that while men are getting more involved in domestic tasks, in most cases it is still women who bear the brunt. And it is mostly women who sort out the details of how they and their children get to and from various workplaces, schools, social services, play areas and other often widely-spread sites.

Women are most often responsible for organising and scheduling domestic tasks, even among the more affluent, who can pay others to do things for them. But while women organised care whether they lived in London or Manchester, and regardless of their social class or neighbourhood, there were differences between and within the cities in the jobs people did and how they sorted out childcare. Single parents, for example, are less likely to be in waged work in London as the costs of childcare are prohibitive. When it comes to working and finding someone to look after small children, the study says it is clear that current policies fail to take the complexity of the modern situation into account.

Professor McDowell said: "We need to think about the ways in which different forms of care might be made more compatible and accessible, whether in terms of hours of provision, costs, or location in a neighbourhood. "For many of those we interviewed, cost as well as quality is a key issue. High quality care is expensive, especially in London, and there are implications in this not only for individual parents but for those who offer a service. "As other research has revealed, new nursery places are often short-lived as local parents cannot afford the high costs, especially when the quality of staff which most parents want tends to raise the price beyond their reach."

More women in better-off households are going to work, mostly full-time, as higher and further education opens up new opportunities. But the study found a growing difference between their living standards and those of women at the other end of the scale. And this difference is becoming more polarised as the service sector expands. It is also clear that many women, in all social classes, have interrupted working lives, with longer-scale implications for their financial independence and later for their pension provision.

Becky Gammon | EurekAlert!
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