24-hour childcare – it is all about the ethos

Dad works as a security guard between 9pm and 9am. Mum is offered a cleaning job working 6am to 2pm. Who will look after their toddler between Mum leaving for work and Dad getting home? Dad works as a driver: four days on, four days off. Mum is offered work in a shop on Saturday mornings. Who will look after their young daughter when Saturday is a working day for Dad?

Today’s labour market makes brutal demands on working people. So Tessa Jowell’s call for 24 hour childcare across London is a good idea – providing it is founded on the right ethos.

Tabloid critics castigate twenty-four hour childcare as a sign of a broken society. Thoughtless parents palming off their toddlers to early years boarding schools. Families so broken that there is no father or grandparents to help bring up the baby.

These are lazy clichés. Brent was the first council in the country to introduce flexible childcare, winning an innovation award earlier this year. Our model primarily targets those on zero-hour contracts and others with unreliable hours. It does not seek to provide wholesale night-time childcare, but to plug gaps when hours change or when a parent needs to attend an interview at short notice. It iw also based around childminders, not nurseries – a really important distinction meaning that the children are always in a home environment.

A key part of the Brent model is a proactive council supporting providers to guarantee high standards. The council also enriches the model through partnerships with the Citizens Advice Bureau, health visitors, social services and domestic violence support workers.

It is not just about work either. It is about providing care in an unpredictable world. One case in Brent involved placing children with a minder after mum was unexpectedly admitted to hospital. This is not a scheme to drive parents back to work enmasse, it is an additional option to support them in tricky times.

The model is working well in Brent and can certainly be expanded. Until now the mayor of London has not been involved, but potentially they could have an important role in connecting networks between boroughs and adding an additional line of public accountability.

The Tories are deregulating childcare and slashing family support services like Sure Start. Their childcare vision is solely about getting parents back to work. Slotting 24 hour childcare into this utilitarian model would be a big concern. Childcare should be about child development: about nurturing the emotional development of children in their early years. Twenty-four hour childcare can play a role in this, but it must be as part of a whole package of inclusive family support.

It is a great idea – providing it is founded on the right ethos.

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Michael Pavey is director of Labour Friends of Sure Start and deputy leader of Brent council. He tweets @MikeyPavey

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Photo: National Apprenticeship Service

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