Having recently started looking at nurseries for her two-and-a-half year old, my sister was surprised by the views of one owner. She advised my sister, who, like me, took a career break after having her first baby, to ease her daughter into nursery gently, not taking up her full 15 hours’ free entitlement straight away. The owner pointed out a group of toddlers. “They’ve been here since first thing this morning,” she said. “They spend more time here than they do with their families. The best place for young children is with their mothers.”
The notion that mothers – and not nurseries – are most qualified to bring up their own children is becoming increasingly antiquated, as the drive to encourage more to return to work takes on greater momentum. Nowhere was this more apparent than in David Cameron’s recent pledge to double the number of free nursery hours for three and four-year-olds from 15 to 30 per week. Such is the Government’s eagerness to implement the policy that it has been brought forward from 2017 to next year. But is an increase in childcare entitlement really what is needed?
Having taken voluntary redundancy from my job after the birth of our first child, now seven, I work freelance – mainly from home – around the needs of our two daughters. Hearing David Cameron’s pledge made my heart sink. It confirmed a prejudice against stay-at-home mothers and the partners who support them. How does this fit with Mr Cameron’s assertion that “families are the bedrock of our society”?
The childcare policy is in line with Chancellor George Osborne’s ambition to have nearly 500,000 more women in the workplace by the beginning of 2016. In the wake of a crippling recession, few would argue with the need to increase GDP, yet there is evidence that many mothers feel under pressure to return to work. A study last year by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) found that almost 45 per cent had cut short their maternity leave, with half of those citing worries over job security as the reason.
For some, going back to work is welcome and, of course, no one should be forced to stay at home when they don’t want to, but for many others, the opportunity to take a career break would be something they would jump at. Unfortunately, as a businesswoman I know put it, taking time out to look after a baby amounts to “career suicide”.
While financial necessity plays a part, it is as much about the pressure to do what is deemed to be right. The message projected by society is clear – that being a mother is, in itself, not enough – and that only those who bring home a salary deserve respect. I believe that this is false reasoning that is leading mothers on a wrong path to fulfilment and self-worth. Whatever talents I might have, I know that, to any company, I am replaceable. To my children, I am not – yet, as society sees it, nurseries are equally as competent to care for them as I am. They are not, and never will be.
Ahead of David Cameron’s pledge to increase free nursery entitlement, the House of Lords produced a critical report on the state of Britain’s nurseries. It finds that many privately-run nurseries are significantly underfunded and suggests that their benefits are negligible even to disadvantaged children. The report concludes that more emphasis should be placed on learning at home and finds that there is an “inherent tension” between the aims of helping mothers to pursue a career and advancing children’s development.
In Germany, the largest producer of GDP in the EU, this tension is recognised. New parents are encouraged to take up to 14 months of shared leave by being paid 67 per cent of their salary and 80 per cent take advantage of this. While, in Britain, child benefit for higher earners has been scrapped, Germany offers a universal payment that increases incrementally as a family grows. German businesses are also more progressive. The 30 largest all have work-life balance initiatives and at Volkswagen, you can even take a five-year sabbatical and, on your return, are guaranteed a job at the same level.
In Britain, the Marriage Allowance, enabling one half of a couple to transfer their tax allowance to the other, was introduced in April. Aimed at supporting stay-at-home mothers, it amounts to a saving of just £212 a year – and only a third of married couples and one in six families with children are eligible.
What is needed is the rebalancing of policies that clearly favour those who choose to return to work and discriminate against those who choose not to. Enabling the transfer of a mere £1,060 in personal tax allowance – only a tenth of the £10,600 an individual can earn before paying income tax – is simply not enough to make any real difference. What families need is the full amount to offset the loss of earnings from mothers who stay at home.
If the Government is serious about making this an option, what they also need is a much higher rate of statutory maternity pay – closer to Germany’s 67 per cent of earnings than the current £139 per week. This wouldn’t be cheap but neither is childcare and, clearly, a lot of investment is required to bring this up to standard. Making it easier for mothers to stay at home would offer families a real choice and ease the pressure on already overburdened nurseries.
For women – who are, as George Osborne acknowledges, so vital to the economy – taking time out for childcare simply can’t continue being tantamount to “career suicide”. It’s time to think more strategically about mothers in the workplace, and not just about hitting quotas.