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Walking the Tightrope: Childcare

As a mum who has spent many years trying to fit together the intricate jigsaw of child rearing challenges, Sally Codman is far from impressed by the latest political proposals to help families with the soaring costs of childcare.

As a working mum - albeit a part-time one - I was interested, not to say envious, when the two main political parties recently unveiled their plans to help families with the soaring costs of childcare.

Interested, because over the past eighteen years, since Eldest Daughter was born, I've struggled and juggled with most available forms of childcare. Envious because, like many of our generation, the Codman Clan has once again missed the boat when it comes to several handouts to help us raise our families.

To put you in the picture, just in case you've missed this debate, Tony and his cronies, who have already made a bid for the hearts, minds and votes of today's families with free part-time nursery places and child tax credits, plan to go even further.

Their latest scheme involves 'wrap-around-care' with clubs based in schools offering up to ten hours of care between 8am and 6pm for youngsters in the five-to-fourteen age group.

Not to be outdone, Michael Howard and his pals responded by outlining plans to raise maternity benefit to 150-a-week from 102 and to extend it from six months to a year.

They also plan to make it easier for grandparents to act as childminders, by offering special short training courses, and widening the use of child tax credits so parents can choose how to spend this money instead of limiting its use to childminders or nurseries.

As a mum who's spent many years trying to fit together the intricate jigsaw of child rearing challenges, whilst attempting to make some contribution to the family budget, I can see yawning gaps in the proposals of both political parties.

Past experience has shown that although free part-time nursery places sound great, they can create more problems than they solve if you're planning to return to work full-time, as you have the problem of who does the other half-day. Past experience has also shown that claiming child tax credits, like many benefits, can be easier said than done.

Future proposals like wrap-around-care might sound like the solution to everyone's problems - but would you really want your child in an after school club five nights a week? Perhaps a more relevant question is whether your 13 and 14-year-olds would want to attend an after school club every night?

Younger kids may be quite happy to attend these clubs with their friends, but could miss out on those extra-curricular activities like swimming lessons, gym clubs? Etc. And from a practical point of view, who would staff all these breakfast-time and teatime clubs? Is there really an army of suitably-qualified people queuing up to work those odd hours required at breakfast and teatime, probably for the minimum wage?

At first glance the Tory plans to provide more flexibility in choosing and paying carers seem like a good idea, after all who wouldn't want a year's maternity leave at 150-per-week? Well employers may not be too keen to lose a key member of staff for such a long time, especially in a small company.

As for persuading grandparents to undertake special courses to 'qualify' as child minders, well I can't see that going down too well. Most grandparents I know could teach anyone a thing or two about raising kids, assuming, of course, that they're available.

Today that's not always the case. Many grandparents who are fit and energetic enough to cope with your two-year-old are also fit and energetic enough to be off white-water rafting, cycling across Europe, taking those holidays they missed out on when they were younger or starting a new life in the sun. They've done their share of potty-training, tantrum-taming and school runs thank-you very much.

All the parents I know who have successfully managed to return to full-time work whilst raising families have had not one but numerous child care schemes in place to cover all eventualities, often involving nannies, grandparents and other reliable helpers of the family and friends variety.

They're the lucky ones who have people they can rely on when the kids come down with Chickenpox or get rushed off to casualty. The people you can count on when the going gets tough, as it often does when raising a family.

There are some things that just can't be covered by any amount of schemes, policies, tax breaks or legislation etc - no matter which political party is currently ruling the roost at Westminster.


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