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Earlier today, Children’s Commissioner was delighted to speak at a panel event, organised by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership and King’s College London, on the issue of childcare in the UK. You can watch the full event here.

Thanks so much. Firstly can I start by saying thank you to Bridget for her words today as well as her essay in the collection. I am really delighted to see the Labour party acknowledge the role and importance of childcare to parents and showing leadership in this area. I’m very supportive of ideas to make the best possible use of schools in this space, and that’s what I called for last year when I set out my own ideas for a reformed childcare system.

And we really do need reform, not just tinkering around the edges. I want to see a wholescale re-set of the system, so that it works for families. Too often in the conversations about childcare we talk about what parents need, or what children need as Bridget pointed out – as if their needs were entirely separate from one another. But of course they aren’t. Parents want childcare that is high quality and loving, so their children can thrive. And children need parents who aren’t dealing with the stress of unaffordable and inflexible childcare. And that’s why I want to move to talking about a system that works for families.

Now, to achieve that goal, I want to see schools extending their hours, and offering care for younger children too. With falling rolls across the country, we need to make the best possible use of the school estate. And schools so often sit at the heart of communities, known and trusted by families.  And I also want to see childminder agencies reimagined and re-thought, so that every local area has an agency which can offer bespoke brokerage services to parents, to create a childcare offer that works for them and their children, as well as driving up quality. We have known for years that childminder numbers continue to fall, but no serious efforts have been made to drive up numbers. And I want to end the cliff edge of support at the end of parental leave, so that those who do want to return to work to work, can. It sometimes seems to me that in designing parental leave and childcare support, people forgot that one-year olds exist.

And that’s what I learnt from my recent Family Review, which examined family life across the UK. And what we saw was that childcare doesn’t currently work for families. It was one of the two biggest issues that parents raised to us – cost of living and childcare. Too often parents are forced into making decisions about work, childcare and parenting roles based not on what works best for them or their children, but based simply on gender.

Now, to inform the Family Review I visited schools, nurseries, Family Hubs and Children’s Centres. I talked to parents about all aspects of family life, about where they turn for help, what they needed from local services and what they needed from Government. They spoke about what they loved about parenting and being a parent, and what was hard. And childcare always fell very clearly into the ‘hard’ category. I had teachers chase me down the pathway when I’d been to talk to the parents of their children about childcare, just begging me to get it fixed – please make Government fix it!

One of the most interesting findings in my review was about the impact Covid had on fathers. The amount of time fathers spent on unpaid childcare almost doubled from 47 minutes a day in 2014 to 90 minutes a day during lockdown. While it’s easy to feel disheartened by the fact that fathers’ time fell back to 56 minutes in 2022, the gap between the amount of time mums and dads spend with their children is, however slowly, closing. But it can’t and mustn’t take seismic events to keep closing that gap.

And things are of course changing for mothers too. Over the past 20 years the employment rate for mothers has increased from 67 per cent to 76 per cent. Now, over time, the working and childcare patterns within families seem to be becoming less gendered.

Although I would say men seem to think we’re further along on this journey than we are – half the dads I surveyed said that childcare was shared equally between both parents, while only twenty percent of mums said this.

But more is needed to close those gaps. And while much of that will be about improving the childcare offer so mothers who are taking on caring responsibilities can work, we need to think more broadly than that about changing attitudes. I’m really excited to hear what Elliott has to say on this shortly, but my view is that we need to start at the very beginning, with changes to parental leave and earmarked time protected for fathers.

Because the gendered expectations on parents are set very early on in a baby’s life, and unless we change that, childcare will continue to be a “women’s issue”.

In years to come I hope – for the sake of fathers, mothers, and most importantly, children – that decisions about working, caring for children and using formal childcare will be based on what genuinely works best for families, rather than just gender.

Read the Commissioner’s contribution to the ‘Essays on Equality: The politics of childcare’ here

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