Grandparents & childcare: will our politicians learn from their electioneering?

In this guest post, Sam Smethers of Grandparents Plus argues that politicians have yet to understand just how reliant many working parents are on grandparents for childcare.

Last week, journalist Gaby Hinsliff let us into one of those elephant-sized hidden truths of the general election campaign when she tweeted:

“This election’s basically reliant on grandparents: every MP/journo/aide with kids I’ve spoken to recently basically reliant on them for campaign childcare.”

So, electioneering doesn’t fit neatly into formal childcare hours – 15 hours of nursery care or the 8am – 6pm that a childminder might offer. Surprised? Yet dependent though they may be, how many of those politicos stop to think whether those grandparents deserve a bit of recognition for what they do? Or (perish the thought) what they would do without them to rely on? Not much campaigning after 6pm methinks, that’s for sure.

Every day across the UK, working parents rely heavily upon grandparents for childcare. Our grandparents – and, let’s be honest about it, often it’s our grandmothers – are the engine room of the UK economy keeping those ‘hard working families’ ‘hard working’. A recent Grandparents Plus Survation poll found that one in five working parents – that’s two million of them – would give up their jobs if they didn’t have grandparents to rely on. A further 20 per cent would reduce their hours. And no surprises to see that it’s mothers more than fathers who take the hit – but there were still 15 per cent of dads saying that they would give up work.

So what’s the problem? Grandparents do it for love, they enjoy it etc. Well, of course they do. But the challenge for us all, and for government is that grandparents aged 55-64 provide the lion’s share of the childcare with those aged 65-74 next in line. There are eight million grandparents providing childcare and most of them are now expected to be staying in work rather than providing childcare in their leisurely retirement. We are expecting these generations of grandparents to be both caring more and working longer – and it doesn’t stack up.

Another Grandparents Plus poll, this time in partnership with Family and Childcare Trust and Save the Children, found that 14 per cent of grandparents had either given up a job, reduced their hours or taken days off sick to provide childcare. That’s 1.9 million grandparents. Again, it’s grandmothers who are most likely to say they gave up work or reduced their hours, but 400,000 grandfathers did so too.

But look even closer at those who are doing the intensive caring and you see that it is younger grandmothers (those in their 50s or even 40s) who are particularly likely to be providing longer hours of childcare. DWP research found that low income mothers are twice as likely to rely exclusively on informal childcare when they go back to work after maternity leave. Formal childcare is often beyond their reach. Either it is too expensive, or (rather like our politicos – see above) it doesn’t suit their anti-social working hours, or they are in very insecure employment and simply cannot commit to a formal childcare arrangement. Those on low pay also have less job security so how can they pay a childminder if they don’t know if they are working tomorrow?

So what’s the solution? Grandparents Plus has consistently argued for a period of grandparental leave which can be taken flexibly by grandparents who are providing childcare for working parents. Alternatively we also argue that if we see the need for shared parental leave, and conceded the principle of transferability then why not make it possible for parents to share unpaid parental leave (i.e. the 18 weeks that can be taken until a child is five) with a grandparent? This would provide some flexibility and would also enable grandparents to support when formal childcare often cannot (e.g. if a child is sick).

Together with a meaningful investment in formal childcare we could create an infrastructure of support for working parents that they can rely on and that responds to the reality of their daily lives. By doing so we would be helping our workforce’s ‘missing millions’ mothers and grandmothers stay in work. This in turn would also help employers as they would see reduce staff absences and improve retention rates.

When we ask grandparents, the public and parents a clear majority supports the policy and amongst those most affected, there is strong support. We just need our politicians (yes those mentioned above so dependent on grandparents) to get it too.

Sam Smethers is Chief Executive of Grandparents Plus.
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