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Childcare is an issue which is increasingly being pushed up the political and media agenda. Politicians from all parties have recognised the need to find a solution to the escalating childcare crunch which has seen prices rise by 27% in the last five years and places become ever-more scarce. The Coalition has extended the 15 hours of free early education offer to cover disadvantaged two-year olds, increased future investment in childcare under Universal Credit, and introduced a Childcare Payments Bill to offer ‘tax-free’ childcare to parents on incomes up to £150,000. The Labour Party has upped the stakes by pledging to increase the early years offer from 15 hours a week to 25 for working parents, and to introduce an entitlement to before- and after-school childcare for primary age children. And, most recently, the Liberal Democrats have promised to expand the early years scheme further still by making it open to all two-year olds regardless of parental income.

The increasing attention being given to childcare is of course welcome. But, here at Gingerbread, we are concerned that a blind-spot has emerged in politicians’ thinking on the issue: holiday childcare.

For 13 weeks of the year, children are out of school and on their holidays. During this time the school gates are shut and the free early-years education offer isn’t available. Suddenly parents are left looking for more childcare support when there is, in fact, less on offer. The Family and Childcare Trust’s most recent holiday childcare survey found that provision of holiday childcare has halved since 2009, whilst costs have risen by over 15 per cent. 

This presents a considerable challenge to any parent, but for the single parents that we work with, the pressure goes up a few notches. Single parents are unable to operate the “shift-parenting” pattern available to couple parents who can share annual leave or the drop-off at childcare. It’s also much more difficult to pay for childcare out of one salary rather than two, meaning that the rising costs of childcare have been hitting single parents particularly hard. 

This summer, we wanted to find out exactly how single parents were faring under these strains so that we could raise their concerns with politicians. The stories they shared with us of the lengths they have had to go to find holiday childcare were astonishing. Some have had to find visas for their parents so that they could fly over from another continent to take care of their children. One in three of the single parents we surveyed had to cut back on spending on essential household items. Another third had to reduce their working hours – taking a cut in income as they did so. One in five had to take unpaid leave.

When parents are having to go to these extremes to find decent care for their children, it’s clear something isn’t working. That’s why Gingerbread has launched a call to politicians to tackle the holiday childcare blind spot in their childcare strategies. These strategies will not only need to address the immediate difficulties that parents face in tracking down holiday childcare – that it is expensive and in short supply – but will also need to take a holistic approach and address the wider issues that are exacerbating these problems. We’re recommending in particular that parties:

  • Work with employers to improve the availability of flexible working – helping parents stay in work during the holidays whilst finding the time necessary to look after their children.
  • Consider the potential for using school buildings as childcare facilities, and supporting schools that are willing and able to provide childcare during the holiday season.
  • Ensure that holiday childcare pressures are taken into account by Jobcentre advisors, factoring in the availability of local childcare when setting expectations for parents’ ability to find and take up work during the holidays.
  • Consider how to support local authorities affected by funding cuts in increasing the availability of holiday childcare in their local area.

By bringing all these proposals together we think the political parties have a fantastic opportunity to develop a genuinely effective and year-round solution to the childcare challenge, and to help ease the huge holiday childcare burden currently weighing down on parents. As competition for the family vote heats-up in advance of next year’s election, all parties would be wise to pay due attention to this important issue.

Matt Hawkins is Campaigns Officer at Gingerbread