Equal societies are better societies

Child drawing

As a working mum with two children under four, I was delighted to be able to use my maiden speech in the assembly earlier this month to support the SDLP’s motion to increase free pre-school childcare entitlement for three and four-year-olds –  in line with the provisions for England set out in July’s budget.

I understand acutely the choices parents face finding quality, convenient childcare and there are comprehensive and compelling reasons why this can’t be left entirely to market provision. For many, the bill exceeds their mortgage or rent costs – £200 per week, per child, is by no means unusual.

The establishment of a universal childcare model would have a transformative impact on those trying to balance home and work life, on educational outcomes, on equality in the workplace, and of the net economic return that comes from more parents in the labour market.

Many parents work three or four days out of a five day week, just to cover their childcare bill. For many more, working isn’t financially viable except to retain their skills and foothold in the labour market.

As well as investment, families need choice and flexibility in the childcare system. Every family is different, and for many a mix private, voluntary, afterschool and family support might be used.

Traditionally, many parents did stay at home to keep house and family, many still will and that should be supported and celebrated. But an acceptance that childcare is a privilege and a duty to be shared by both parents is now mainstream, as is an understanding that working parents of either gender will still establish perfectly warm and secure relationships with their children.

Many parents will want to work part time and flexibly and much more can be done to encourage employers to help them do that.

Allowing parents fulfilling, stimulating work has benefits far beyond financial remuneration, and supporting parents is the key in any childcare plan. I believe childcare is a deeply sound financial investment – fund it now and we will see benefits for years to come.