Response to the National Childcare Strategy

1 December 2004

This briefing analyses the childcare strategy from the perspective of the caring role of men in families.  In families with children under five, men do one third of parental care [EOC 2003].  This represents an eight-fold increase in the amount of care being carried out by fathers in the last 30 years – a process of profound social change is underway and is on-going.  These changes are brought about principally by the increased participation of women in employment, but this has led to a cultural shift in the way men view caring for children – as women’s aspirations have changed, so have men’s: the desire to participate more in the lives of their children is growing in all social groups, particularly among younger parents.

The Childcare Strategy represents a step forward of monumental significance, bringing together child welfare, childcare and work/life balance in a revolutionary way.  It creates the ideal framework for an increased emphasis on mobilising active fatherhood as a driver of expanding choices for women and providing benefits for children.  But work needs to be done to integrate into the Strategy the vision and energy of the Children’s National Service Framework in relation to mobilising fatherhood for the benefit of children – this aspect of the Strategy is currently under-developed.  By allocating the caring role to women more than to men, the strategy constrains caring choices for fathers, and thereby constrains choices for mothers too.

This document recommends greater choice for parents in who takes leave entitlements, when these entitlements are taken and how they are taken.  It recommends that choices are made real be recognising the barriers to take-up and tackling these barriers.

Expanding choices for women

The key emphasis of the childcare strategy is on providing women with more choices: mothers “who still bear most of the responsibility for caring for children, feel they are not left with sufficient choice about how to balance work and family life”. [3.7]

The strategy provides two kinds of choice to mothers:

  • Childcare so that they can work: a core aim of the strategy is to “ensure that mothers can work and progress their careers”. [1.4, 2.1]  The choice of mothers is not real if childcare is not available/affordable/high quality. [2.52]  Childcare is an important facilitator for lone parents to work.  [2.25]  63% of mothers currently in employment wanted to work fewer hours and 44% would prefer to give up work and stay at home with their children if they could afford it.  [2.53]
  • Extended maternity leave so that they can choose to stay at home.

The strategy alludes to the impact of fathers’ activities on the choices made by women in families.  A father involved in caring can assist mothers to work [see note a] [2.13] and mothers are more likely to work when living with their partner (in these families fathers do one third of parental care). [B12]  Conversely, a father earning gives choice to mothers to stay at home [see note b] [3.8].  The Strategy admits that the lack of childcare is not always the reason why mothers do not work. [2.54] 

But the Strategy focuses only on professional childcare as a tool for supporting mothers to work.  It does not regard increased opportunities for fathers to care as a tool to give mothers more choice.  Entitlements for fathers are discussed only as benefits to fathers rather than as also improving opportunities for women.

Not expanding choices for men

Overall, there is little discussion of the experiences of fathers and the constraints they face, and little reference to available research.  The statement that women still bear greater responsibility for caring for children fails to recognise the greater responsibility that fathers bear for earning money for their families and the many pressures this brings.  The statistics presented in the Strategy are overwhelmingly about women’s position in the labour market and there is little about the extent and status of men’s contribution to caring, which is substantial (one third of total parental care, 8 times more than 30 years ago).

The increased involvement of fathers and their desire to be more involved in the first year, however, are recognised, and the benefits of this to children are referred to.  [1.2, 1.8, 2.13, 3.8, 4.5, A28]

The need for more choice for fathers is also recognised, to enable them to play more of a role: improved arrangements for parents to take paid leave after the birth of a child and work with employers to improve access to flexible working. [1.8, 1.12, 2.59, 3.8, 4.1]

But neither of these ideas are translated into tools in the Strategy:

  • There are no measures to tackle the low take-up rate of paternity leave (19%), such as increased pay – compared to substantial increases in maternity pay.  Two weeks of paternity leave are presented, exaggeratedly, as a tool for tackling the constraints faced by men to be involved throughout the early years of the children’s lives. [3.8]
  • There are no measures to tackle the low take-up of the right to ask for flexible working among fathers (1 in 10 fathers, as opposed to 1 in 4 mothers; DTI 2004), also presented as a significant solution to choice for fathers in the Strategy, exaggeratedly in the light of the actual use of this benefit by fathers. [3.9]
  • It is abundantly clear from every other country that has developed policy in this area, that the proposed transferability of leave entitlements [4.5] will not result in significant opening up of choices for families, without leave for fathers being available on the same use-it-or-lose it basis that leave is available to mothers.
  • There are no measures to improve information for fathers, the current state of which is highly inadequate.  The Strategy regards information as crucial. [2.29]

Lack of measures to tackle gender segregation in the childcare workforce

The Strategy discusses the development of the workforce, but does not refer to the extreme gender segregation of the workforce as a problem, which is already creating skills shortages, as evidenced by a current Formal Investigation by the Equal Opportunities Commission.  The Childcare Strategy depends on a resolution of the gender segregation problem.

A different approach: maximum choice for each parent by maximising choice for both parents

The new vision is:

Choice, rather than state dictat, about who takes leave

In most two-parent families with pre-school children mothers and fathers share work and care: 55% of mothers in these families work, and fathers do one third of parental care.  The economic reality for most families is that they need to have more than one full-time job and most families do less then two full-time jobs.  Patterns of sharing caring and earning are extremely diverse and diversity needs to be enabled.

Care patterns in separated families are similarly diverse, with ever increasing numbers of non-resident parents remaining in their children’s lives.  Here, both parents’ participation in the paid workforce with access to flexible working have been shown to be major predictors of substantial and ongoing care for, and relationships with, children by both parents.  Only in about 8% of all families, do children have no contact with their fathers with genuinely no possibility of sharing caring or earning responsibilities. Family poverty is a high risk in this group; and this group is rightly a particular target for the Childcare Strategy.

So, while policy must recognise that new mothers still do most of the childcare and new fathers most of the earning, it must also acknowledge that both parents are equally responsible for both caring and earning: neither can work unless his or her children are looked after; neither can care unless the other – or the State – is footing the bill.

When devising social policy, especially in a time of great social change, there is always the danger that social policy becomes a conservative force – that designing it to reflect ‘what we do now’, while meeting short-term needs and providing short-term satisfaction, hinders positive development towards ‘what we may become’. 

Policy development in this and related areas needs to take into account that the education levels and workforce participation of these mothers are growing rapidly, as is motivation among both mothers and fathers to share the care of children more equally.  Furthermore, policies that wittingly or unwittingly entrench mothers as primary carers and fathers as earners have consequences further down the line: when today’s happy housewife becomes tomorrow’s low skilled lone mum and pension-poor retiree; and today’s confident breadwinner becomes tomorrow’s angry divorced dad, with a tangential relationship with his children and substantially reduced care from them as he approaches old age.

Men who take time off after the birth spend more time with their children later on and this contributes positively to their development, according to research reviewed in an EOC report published in January 2005, Shared caring: bringing fathers into the frame (Margaret O’Brien).  This corresponds with a wide body of research showing correlations between early father-involvement and positive child outcomes.  The benefit of father involvement in children’s lives is already strongly represented in policy:

“The role fathers in parenting their children is frequently overlooked.  Their contribution to their child’s development and well-being is important.  Good parenting by fathers can significantly promote their child’s development….Good parenting by fathers is associated with better mental health in children, higher quality of later relationships, less criminality, better school attendance and behaviour, and better examination results.” [National Service Framework for Children, Standard 2, 3.6, p.69]

Fathers’ sharing in the wider responsibilities of parenthood is of vital importance. [Standard 2, 2.4, p.67]
“Involvement of prospective and new fathers in a child’s life is extremely important for maximising the life-long well-being and outcomes of the child (regardless of whether the father is resident or not).” [Standard 11, 5.6, p.11]
If mothers work full time before a child is 18 months old, there is a small negative effect on the child, eliminated if the father is involved during this period [see note c]. This indicates the importance of flexibility for fathers to allow mothers real choice in returning to work.

Choice about balance of leave and reduced hours

For many parents and for many employers, making leave available in units of one week is not what is needed.  Where two parents are sharing earning and caring, for example, an arrangement might involve each parent taking particular days off each week.  For some parents, being able to work reduced hours on some or all days may be the solution.  Leave entitlements should not restrict any kind of arrangement that might work best for parents.  Employers also need flexibility.

Choice about when time away from work is taken over the first few years of a child’s life

Leave entitlements are over-concentrated in the first year, leaving a gap in provision in later years.  In Sweden and Denmark, fathers take more time off in the second and third years than in the first year [see note c].  Other than the leave attached to the birth, entitlements should be available to parents over a longer time-frame.

Make choice real: paid at 90% earnings with a cap, and tackling barriers to free choice by parents

Because of the earning responsibilities of both parents, any leave that is not paid will be of very limited use.

Key barriers to choices for parents include:

  • Lack of information accessible to both parents about the full range possibilities as they make their decisions.  Parents often experience significant anxieties when they consider non-traditional patterns of earning and caring.
  • A workplace culture that allocates caring and earning responsibilities to women and men respectively.  Strong measures need to be introduced: make leave for men available on the same use-it-or-lose it basis that it is available to women; and invest in communications work to challenge workplace culture and encourage work flexibility applied equally to women and men

Supporting shared care in separated families living in disadvantage

Following the judgment of the Hockenjos v. Secretary of State for Work & Pensions (21 December 2004), where the lack of financial support for non-resident parents who share care for children was found to be sex discrimination, the Childcare Strategy must address the barriers to sharing caring responsibilities in low-income families, where child poverty is a high risk.

Short-term recommendations for leave entitlements

Increase paternity pay to the same level as maternity pay in the first weeks.

Make maternity leave transferable to the maximum extent permitted by the health requirements of mother and baby post-birth, but with due regard for the choice of women.

Introduce paid parental leave (90% of earnings) – one month for each parent, available fully flexibly and over the maximum possible period of time.


[a] The negative effects on children of full-time maternal employment in first year can be offset by increased involvement of fathers.

[b] Unpaid maternity pay does not provide real choice for those without another source of income, for example a partner in work.

[c] Reported in O’Brien, Shared caring: bringing fathers into the frame (EOC 2005)