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Could Flexible Working Save Our Struggling Childcare Sector?

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‘Business reasons’ is often the lofty excuse most companies give for not implementing flexible working. It’s always been a grey area and one that is tough to disprove. But ultimately, the ball has been firmly in the employer’s court.

Until this week. New research from Flex Appeal - my campaign to fight for flexible working for all - and Robert McAlpine has found flexible working has a value of £37bn to the economy. Now we can show that if we increase the uptake of flexible working by 50%, we will reap the benefits with £55bn going to the bottom line. That’s cold, hard cash - and facts - that can’t be argued against.

This is the missing jigsaw piece, where we can show that not only do 9 in 10 people want to work flexibly, not only does it enable people to work in a more human and humane way, but it is driving pure profit to the bottom line. Gender equality and inclusion aside, it’s all about the money.

We have all heard the phrase, ‘levelling-up’ from the government as we Build Back Better following the pandemic. The underlying challenge is how we address regional inequality and how to achieve this with increased productivity and access to jobs. Flexible working would significantly turn the dial here.

A 50% increase in flexible working would increase its value to the economy to £55bn, that’s an extra £18bn for the exchequer that could be reinvested into other areas of our economy that need it. Like the childcare sector. Research from the Women’s Budget Group has demonstrated how increased funding could rescue the childcare sector that is currently collapsing at an alarming rate due to underfunding.

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The childcare sector is struggling, really struggling, to survive due to severe underfunding; even with the additional funding announced by the government, there is a significant deficit. Research from The Early Years Alliance unveiled that 1 in 6 nurseries will have closed by Christmas (1 in 4 in more deprived areas); this is just around the corner. The government currently spends about £5.1bn per year on childcare in England. An additional spend of £10.4bn (bringing it to a total of £15.5 billion per year) would enable universal childcare provision year-round from the age of six months onwards - this would involve investment in creating enough places too.

If we can boost childcare in the short-term with this increased funding, we could potentially see 30 hours of free childcare per child all year round from the age of 6 months, which would be a complete and utter game-changer for the thousands of parents who can’t afford to work until they receive their funded government hours. It would also be a lifeline for single parents, as research from Gingerbread tells us 41% of single parents struggle to afford childcare, compared with 14% of parents in couples. This same lack of affordable childcare prevents many single parents from seeking better-paid roles and blocks in-work progression.

It would mean better-qualified staff, with 45% having a degree and 55% having a Level 3 qualification. When we invest in an industry, we are investing in the people in it. Nursery and early years workers are looking after our children, helping them to grow and to learn and to develop. They need support to be able to advance and to embrace learning opportunities in the sector.

It would mean a minimum pay at the Real Living Wage for Level 3 workers and £13.18 for degree holders. This would be life changing. Too many women have contacted me to say that they have had to leave their roles, the roles that they loved in childcare, because they can’t pay the bills. We need to value and support this profession, as they do in other countries, to ensure it is financially viable. We can’t lose all the brilliant early year’s staff who are propping the sector up.

We need to embrace flexible working by saying yes. Fifty per cent of people who asked for flexible working were refused, and research shows that fathers' requests are twice as likely to be rejected as mothers when they ask for flexible working. This too has a cost. It costs businesses £1.7bn per year to just say no. Beyond this, we need companies to advertise flexibility in their job adverts. We need employers to think proactively about flexible working, and how a role can be done flexibly and to communicate that. Timewise research revealed that three in four jobs currently do not mention flexible working.

Let’s make flexible working work, not just for the here and now, but for the potential economic impact and the lasting effects that this could have on our children. This is for all of us. But ultimately, it’s about the bottom line.


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