A tough choice

UK’s childcare strategies seem ineffective to support mothers’ participation in the labour market.

The dilemma of balancing family and career is still faced by many women, particularly by those who are mothers. The social norms related to the traditional gender division of labour say women are responsible for housework and childbearing while their male partners shall provide maintenance to the household through paid labour. In spite of all changes on these norms, mainly by the female economic empowerment around the world, the responsibility over children keeps falling on many women, even in developed countries. Thus, childcare provision appears as an important policy to allow mothers to work, permitting them to balance their time between childrearing and paid labour.

Regarding this issue, United Kingdom (UK) is a relevant instance. This country has adopted stunning plans of childcare provision, aiming to promote mothers’ participation in the labour market. An example is the 1st National Childcare Strategy, implemented in 1998, which openly targeted to alleviate family poverty through the shift of mothers’ to paid work. Another example is the 10-Year Childcare Strategy in 2005, which provides free childcare to all children aged 3 and 4 years. The importance of this issue has been underlined by its presence in national debates during the last general election, in 2015.

However, amidst all these efforts, British mothers’ participation in the labour market rates are still noticeably lower than the ones observed in other developed countries. In 2012, OECD’s Family Database showed UK was still only the 16th country in terms of mothers going to work, with just 67% of British mothers were working; compared to 73% in France, 78% in the Netherlands and 84% in Denmark.

This apparent lack in UK’s strategies to support more mothers who wish to seek employment may be related to the irregular distribution of childcare places in the British territory, varying from 11 to 58 per one hundred children across the different counties. Besides, the situation of mothers from ethnic minorities or of foreign origin is especially more difficult, since they are usually unable to find childcare facilities that address specific needs related to their religious or cultural traditions.

Consequently, mothers in the UK are among those with highest preference for informal kinds of childcare – such as leaving their children with friends, neighbours or relatives. OECD’s Family Database shows that the rate of British mothers who use informal kinds of childcare reached 37% in 2012, while only 19% in France and virtually zero in Denmark. This characteristic relates to the bad perception mothers have about the quality of the childcare provided, given that mothers are concerned not only about the free time childcare provides them to work, but also about the educational outcomes childcare provides to their children. Therefore, the fact that childcare in the UK is seen as having lower quality than its neighbouring countries’ also explains the aversion British mothers have for their national childcare centers. Furthermore, British childcare services have not been able to attend to an increasing number of parents with flexible or irregular working hours, such as 35% of those employed in 2015 who worked overtime hours and the 15% of the workforce who were self-employed and also experienced irregular patterns of work. Lack of childcare flexibility is also a significant constraint, as are the lack of provision and affordability.

At last, childcare provision is only part of a complex system of incentives for mothers’ labour force participation, which involves the labour market conditions, the institutional aspects behind female economic empowerment and gender division of labour, and also an usual scheme of taxes and benefits. In the UK, Child Benefit, In Work Credit and Working Tax Credit are examples of benefits which aim to incentivize mothers’ participation in labour market. The coordinated inclusion into this intricate system of better childcare provision that meets the needs of mothers in the UK is essential to generate the right support for mothers’ decision to take on paid work while raising a family.

Only childcare provision cannot be enough to guarantee mothers’ entry into the labour market because their particular childcare needs, factors in decision-making in relation to quality childcare centres and policy design and implementation equally must be deeply understood. Otherwise, childcare strategies can present disappointing results for families in the UK.

Diego da Silva Rodrigues

Diego is an applied economist interested in policy evaluation and quantitative methods. His main interests are around family issues, such as marriage, parenting, gender, fertility and children, being member of the International Network of Child Support Scholars (INCSS) and the Parenting Culture Studies Postgraduate Network. Diego has also publications in migration and health economics, and is currently involved with human rights and democracy activism in South America. At present, he is completing his PhD at the University of Kent, UK, and is lecturer in Economics at IESGO, Brazil.
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