OPINION: Affordable Childcare - ‘Too many parents barely cover the cost of nurseries through their wages’ - Derry MLA Sinead McLaughlin
The return of schools is good news for the mental health of our children. But it presents new challenges for parents trying to arrange childcare. In Derry there is a serious lack of affordable childcare.
According to Employers for Childcare’s survey last year, 73% of Derry parents report a lack of childcare provision. That is the second highest rating across the North. It is another league table where we are at the top, when we want to be at the bottom.
This lack of childcare explains other problems. Derry has the highest official level of unemployment – those on the Claimant Count. It also has the second highest level of hidden unemployment - the economically inactivity - who represent 30% of Derry’s working age adults. This is much higher than the rate for the North as a whole. Caring responsibilities are often the reason.
For single parents, in particular, obtaining affordable childcare is a major difficulty. It is then not only a problem of finding a job, but also of earning enough to pay for the childcare. That is despite the fact that many workers in the childcare sector are themselves badly paid.
As things stand, too many parents barely cover the cost of nurseries through their wages. Yet we want more parents to return to work as we need their skills, just as they need the income. Many parents are forced to work part-time, when they would prefer to work longer hours, just because there is a lack of available childcare. This pushes down women’s income – as the reality is that it is still women who do most of the childcare – reduces their prospects for career progress and undermines attempts to create a more equal society.
If we are serious about tackling low pay – and this is another league table where Derry is at the wrong end – then we must support those with caring responsibilities to work longer hours and earn higher pay, if that is what they want.
There are solutions – and it is disappointing that our education, economy and communities ministers are not pursuing these with vigour. More schools could support parents through greater flexibility, with breakfast and after school clubs, as well as holiday time activities. The Department for Education has to take a lead on this, rather than leave it to schools.
The Department for the Economy must recognise that childcare sits at the heart of our economic recovery programme – yet it doesn’t. And social housing providers can be involved – as some already are - by providing nurseries for tenants, supporting more tenants to work and in the process helping them to pay their rents. The communities minister should give social landlords a strong push. We need to do much more to support parents and other carers, who are nurturing the next generation. Without their work we will all be the poorer – literally.
*Sinéad McLaughlin is SDLP MLA for Foyle and the SDLP spokesperson for jobs.