When schools closed in March, Cassie Williams, a criminal barrister based in Leeds, north England, was relieved to find that she qualified as an essential worker and her three children could get places. Then the term ended and she discovered that their usual holiday childcare was severely reduced.
“We would normally have holiday care between 7.30am to 6pm every day. We have 8.30am to 5.30pm three days a week. I am lucky to have three days a week. They are rammed. They have [been] shielding staff.” It coincides with an extension of her working day as courts try to clear the backlog of cases from lockdown.
Ms Williams will toggle childcare with her husband but knows she is far luckier than many friends who have spent months juggling teaching their children with work, and who feel under pressure from employers expecting them back at the office despite having no childcare over the holidays. The prime minister’s announcement that people should return to the office just as schools broke up was particularly infuriating, she adds.
Rebecca Taylor, co-founder of Tech Returners, a programme that helps IT professionals back to work after a career break, agrees. “A lot of holiday clubs aren’t running due to Covid but parents are still expected to work as normal. The emotional and mental toll on parents is starting to show with the continuous guilt of not doing enough.”
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, a charity that focuses on education, says the lack of holiday care has placed many parents in a really challenging position. The slow and piecemeal release of government guidance for childcare providers has meant that many have been unable to operate safely over the holidays. “It makes no sense to encourage parents to return to work without ensuring that they are able to make suitable childcare arrangements. The government has long overlooked the importance of the role of the childcare sector, but if it wants to restart the economy, it cannot ignore it for any longer.”
Sam Smethers, chief executive of gender equality and women’s rights charity the Fawcett Society, points out that before Covid-19 only “a third of local areas had enough holiday childcare for full-time working parents, and prices were high and increasing. Even that limited system will now be in tatters.”
The Office for National Statistics has found that during the lockdown, parents were almost “twice as likely to be furloughed (13.6 per cent) as those without children (7.2 per cent)”. Research by advocacy group Pregnant Then Screwed of almost 20,000 mothers and pregnant women found that the lack of childcare was viewed by 46 per cent of those losing their jobs as a factor.
Some employers have offered paid leave to cope with dual demands, others have required employees to take unpaid time off which means families have lost income.
Ms Smethers wants government to step in with a rescue package for the childcare sector so that parents, particularly mothers, are able to get back to work. “Otherwise, for those parents, the investment in the job retention scheme will have been a waste of money.”
Working parents’ experiences of their managers has been mixed. A report by Bright Horizons, a childcare provider, said mid-year employee performance reviews had in general been used to talk about managing workload and concerns over burnout, rather than career progression, and that organisations were encouraging senior leaders to take time off to set an example to the workforce.
However, it said that employers need to be consistent on the messages they put out about flexible working. “Company policies alone do not embed good practice, and that cultural change, supported by line managers is a significant influencing factor.”
Jane van Zyl, chief executive of Working Families, a non-profit group, called on employers to be understanding and “urged government to extend the furlough scheme past October for parents and carers who cannot work or need to work reduced hours because of their caring responsibilities”.
In the US, the childcare sector is struggling and schools in many states are not expected to open in September. In anticipation, “parent pods” have sprung up across the country, as mothers and fathers create small local groups — or microschools — and hire a teacher to oversee children’s learning. Steven Eno, co-founder of Impact Connections, has helped to match like-minded parents and help them iron out the teething problems.
He says that parent pods are forming in the summer to help resolve childcare problems and it is exposing some difficult issues, such as families having different attitudes to risk-taking when it comes to coronavirus.
“Some families are very strict. Some other families go to restaurants and haven’t been quarantining much. If you have two families with different philosophies, it can fall apart and there’s lots of arguments,” says Mr Eno.
Some employers have stepped in to help. At US bank BNY Mellon, the number of back-up childcare days offered through Bright Horizons was increased from six to 15 days per dependent per employee, and included access to summer holiday camps.
For those with children at home, there were also virtual camps with computer science, coding and AI classes. Between May and June, take-up increased by 150 per cent. In Google’s Hyderabad office, there were virtual activities for Googlers and “Googlets” (Googlers’ children) including arts and crafts sessions.
Yet even if schools are open in the autumn, there are fears that wraparound care will be non-existent, meaning that parents will find themselves trying to square a working day with a short school day.
Jude McKaig, a nurse in Yorkshire, north England, whose partner is also a nurse, has three children. While she feels sure that as a key worker she will be able to get a place at school, she is worried about the lack of wraparound care.
“Local after-school clubs have seen a rise in requests and one I know of has a long waiting list for places. I am worried about what we will do, especially if there is a second wave and our work sees another demand placed upon us,” she says.