This week, like many parents, my focus will be on those big three words: back to school.
Whether it is down to the shops to buy new uniforms, or battling through the hordes of small children needing new shoes, it is a busy (and expensive) late summer.
However, getting back into the routine of packed lunches and filled school bags is only the start. For working parents, arranging the time before and after school is a greater challenge. While school might run from 9am to 3pm, there are not many jobs advertised in Edinburgh that follow those hours. For many, that means relying on a battalion of friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles that make up the informal care system. For others there are gaps to fill both before and after school.
That is why I was so disappointed in a recent response I received from the council about afterschool clubs.
In short – the law doesn’t make this our responsibility, so it isn’t our priority. That’s despite the council being the largest provider of breakfast club and afterschool club venues in the city.
The whole reason I was writing to the council was because parents in my constituency of Edinburgh Southern are not able to access afterschool clubs due to a lack of available spaces. That’s not just inconvenient, but potentially disastrous for a family, who might have to reduce hours at work or pay for a private childminder.
Out of school care isn’t just important for families’ flexibility. Allowing both parents to work a full day reduces poverty, increases equality and tackles the gender pay gap. We also know from research that they can have positive effects on children’s education too. A study on breakfast clubs showed that they improved concentration, behaviour and importantly added the equivalent of two months’ additional progress for pupils.
Despite these challenges, the whole childcare conversation is concentrated elsewhere: on three- and four-year olds. The Scottish Government’s plan is to expand funded childcare for those children to 30 hours per week. But in this area we also have a problem. Edinburgh needs to double the number of childcare workers to 1350, and there simply aren’t the people to do that before 2020.
Meanwhile council officials said there was a “significant risk” around the building of new facilities to meet the new commitment. Finally, as we come full circle back to flexibility: “Parent expectations around choice of provision, flexibility and accessibility may not be operationally sustainable.”
That is because private nurseries – who make up a big chunk of funded provision in Edinburgh – aren’t keen on the new system, with 46 per cent saying they were unlikely to get involved in the initiative.
We need bold policies but we also need practical solutions to the problems that follow. The only thing that is clear in this busy week is that finding appropriate childcare will continue to be a headache for parents and the government for the years to come.
Daniel Johnson is the Labour MSP for Edinburgh Southern