Hannah Fearn, The Independent
When people say “the personal is political”, what they mean is that it’s very hard to do your job when there’s a one-year-old child whining and performing eccentric laps of the living room in the background. When that job requires a certain amount of focused concentration — let’s say, writing a column for a national newspaper — it’s almost impossible.
This is by way of explanation for any lapses in my grammar that follow because, with almost perfect pathos, my toddler’s nursery couldn’t take her at short notice this week due to staff shortages. So here I am, trying to do everything at once. It’s horrible.
Thousands of families are about to be plunged into the same impossible situation as the cost of living crisis hits day nurseries. Already hamstrung by the lack of government investment, nurseries are now unable to meet rising wage bills alongside extortionate energy costs. To put it in the most basic of terms: it’s expensive to run a nursery because you need constant access to heating and hot water all day long.
Many nursery managers are admitting defeat and closing before they face being forced into administration. This leaves working parents unable to fulfil their own obligations to their employers and at risk of losing their jobs.
The increased flexibility that the post-pandemic “hybrid working” culture now allows is only beneficial to parents of young children if they also have childcare. For anyone unclear about this: it is not possible to do a job competently at the same time as also having sole responsibility for a small child. Absolutely not. Given that there are staff shortages and demand for workers almost everywhere, here is a conundrum. The resistance of the government to invest in childcare over the last decade is hard to fathom. Why is it so difficult for politicians to grasp that people in gainful employment, paying tax, deliver a much greater return to the state than forcing those people out of the workforce to look after children? (And while they’re doing this, by the way, they are described as “economically inactive” — the biggest lie of all in a political culture defined by absolute whoppers.)
Childcare is not a nice bonus. It’s a form of economic infrastructure akin to public transport and reliable broadband. Without it, the workforce is hobbled — as are the women who should be in it.
There was once an end in sight: first, the arrival at the threshold for 30 free hours of childcare provided by the state, just after a child age of three (and now harder than ever to access); then, around 18 months later, the start of school. But now even that respite is in contention. Also facing a financial crisis in this era of hyper inflation are school leaders — some of whom are now considering reducing the school week to four, or even three, days. Headteachers have no choice but to raise this issue in the most arresting way. I do not mean to underplay the extremes they face. Nevertheless, this is simply a terrible idea.
As we know, from the experience of the pandemic, reducing hours in face-to-face education is a huge gamble with children’s lives. It raises serious safeguarding issues. It cuts the chances of children receiving a good education and developing physically, intellectually and socially at expected rates. Is this what we want?
Children’s futures aside — what a thing to have to say! — even the discussion of part-week school closures says out loud the thing that policy makers have apparently been rolling around in their minds for a while: that women’s potential is a disposable asset. The country, it seems, doesn’t need the skills, expertise and commitment of 50 per cent of its people.
A quick recap on British women’s economic situation: the shrinking of wages, proliferation of low-paid work and the cost of living crisis is already disproportionately hitting women. Take the iniquitous circle of care work as an example: more likely to have a female workforce, and more likely to be low paid; more likely to face cuts due to the cost of living with, say, nursery staff being laid off and zero hours contractees unable to secure enough hours; more likely to create a personal cost of living crisis for those former employees.
Statistically, more women than men inhabit low-paid roles with remuneration set at less than the living wage. Women are also more likely to shoulder the expenses most affected by rises in costs (such as the household food budget) from their own earnings, and are also less likely to be in full-time work. For mothers, especially single mothers, the situation is magnified. For most families, a woman reducing her hours or abandoning paid work — she is working, don’t forget: always, always working — is the only economically sensible answer to the question of how to meet the challenge of the winter ahead of us. If nurseries close, more mothers will make that choice. If schools reduce to a short week, will those who keep ploughing on, holding onto their jobs, be in a small minority?
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