February 08, 2017

Childcare crisis

The newspapers are again full of headlines alluding to a brewing crisis in childcare. The removal of funding for Sure Start combined with the promise to provide children with 30 hours of free childcare provision, but without the resources to pay for this, seems to be mean we could soon be entering a new era of uncertainty in the early years. My work on the history of childcare means I'm not entirely surprised. Why politicians have often paid lip service to the importance of early years care and education, they have been less keen to fund it, particulalry at times of general austerity. So it will be interesting to see how this current crisis develops, but I feel sorry for todays under fives and their parents as, history shows, the omens are not good.

October 26, 2016

UK childcare is the most expensive in the world

Childcare has again been in the news. A study by the OECD found that childcare costs in Britain are the highest in the Western world with nearly 34 per cent of a British couple's net income goes towards the cost of childcare. The figure has gone up since the 33 per cent figure recorded six years ago and is more than three times the cost in France and Germany.

A full-time nursery place for a child under two costs £222 a week, up by a third in six years. It means working mothers now have to spend £11,300 a year on average on childcare, and up to £15,700 in London.

My research on pre-school childcare in post-1945 Britain found that this situation is nothing new. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, childcare provision in Britain was lower than many other Western states. In the late-1980s Britain had one of Europe’s poorest records of state-provided childcare in Europe. She stated that of Britain’s three million under-fives, 22 per cent received nursery education, a further 18 per cent were admitted to a primary school at the age of four or over, with only 1 per cent attending council day nurseries. In contrast, in France the government provided full-time care for 33 per cent of two-year-olds, in Denmark the figure was 29 per cent.

One reason why childcare has always been more expensive and harder to come by in Britain is that his not been provided by the state and instead parents have had to rely on the voluntary and private sectors.

Why has Britain been so different? Vicky Randall believes that some of the differences between countries can be explained by the type of their state. Developing this point, she argues that Britain’s childcare policy accords much more closely with that found in other ‘liberal’ welfare states (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) than with policy in the social democratic states found in much of Continental Europe. In these liberal welfare states, provision has largely been left to the incentives of the free market.

History shows that Britain has lagged behind its continental neighbours in the provision of widely available, affordable childcare for decades and things are unlikley to change soon.

May 06, 2016

60 Years of the NCT

Writing about web page https://www.nct.org.uk/get-involved/nct-archive

The 4th May marked 60 years of the NCT. On 4th May 1956 a small advert was placed in the personal column of the Times by a young mother, Prunella Briance, calling on women to join a new association which would support them through childbirth. The following year, the Natural Childbirth Association of Great Britain was launched to promote the teaching of the obstetrician, and founder of the natural childbirth movement, Dr Grantly Dick Read. Renamed the National Childbirth Trust in 1961, it aimed to teach pregnant women skills in relaxation and breathing and tried to persuade medical authorities to facilitate home-births or at least to provide a more homely environment for institutional births. By the 1970s, the NCT reacted to the increasingly interventionist practices seen in British obstetrics by pursuing a less accommodating approach to medical professionals and since the 1980s has explicitly espoused women’s ‘right to choose’. The NCT has therefore fulfilled a number of different functions for women. It is an educational organisation (providing instruction and information both through its classes and literature), but has also acted as a pressure group campaigning for women’s rights in respect to medical care. Moreover, NCT classes have come to offer new parents an entree into a ready-made social network, an increasing need in the context of the changing patterns of kinship, housing and geographical mobility seen in the post-war years. Here's to another 60 years!

January 22, 2016

Childcare Bill continued…

The current Conservative government wants to increase the number of children receiving early years’ care and education, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. However the Childcare Bill 2015-2016, which was based upon a Conservative manifesto to increase the number of funded childcare hours, has already attracted controversy. In the summer of 2015 Sky News reported that childcare providers were concerned that parents’ expectations were being raised unrealistically as current subsidies did not cover nurseries’ actual costs. That autumn the number of families who will benefit from the bill had been cut by a third as a result of cost-saving changes outlined by George Osborne in the spending review on 25 November 2015. Under the original terms of the offer, as many as 600,000 families were said to benefit, but only 390,000 families will now be able take advantage of the scheme. An upper income limit of £100,000 per parent has been set (families which include a parent earning above this figure will not be eligible to receive the free hours) and parents will now qualify only if they work at least sixteen hours a week, up from the eight hours previously stipulated. History shows us that this tension between the desire to expand free early years’ care and education and concerns over how it will be funded is in fact nothing new. It has long been recognised that investing in the early years’ will be good for children, families and the country as a whole. However agreeing who will finance these services has long proved difficult.

August 31, 2015

Government plea to nurseries over free childcare

The current conflict between the government’s desire to expand free nursery education for two- to four-year-olds and their reluctance to provide the funding to do so is in fact nothing new. For over a hundred years nursery education has suffered from the reluctance of governments of all political persuasions to invest in nursery education meaning generations of British children have not experienced the same opportunities to attend a nursery school as many of their western European contemporaries. There have been numerous moments when nursery education was expanded or looked set to expand before a retrenchment occurred due to changes in the country’s economic fortune.

For example in the 1929 election Labour included the wide provision of nursery schools in its policy outline and after it was returned, the new government sent out a circular to local authorities giving them strong encouragement to open nursery schools. Nine new nursery schools were opened in 1930, with plans for many more. The promised expansion was again curtailed by the demands of economy, though, resulting from the financial crisis of the following year.

During the last years of the Second World War plans were again made for large-scale nursery provision. However, these proposals were not translated into post-war policy. Nursery education was left in an ambiguous position under the 1944 Education Act: because it was not mandatory, some local education authorities believed they could avoid providing nursery education.

In 1972, hopes for universal nursery provision were again raised when Margaret Thatcher, as Minister of Education, produced a white paper recommending the wholesale increase of nursery education for all three- and four-year-olds whose parents wished them to have them. It was expected that by 1980 there would be nursery school places for 50 per cent of three-year-olds and 90 per cent of four-year-olds. Optimism quickly faded, though, as another economic crisis arose. After Labour was returned in the 1974 election, Anthony Crosland, Secretary of State for the Environment with responsibility for local government, famously told local authorities on the 9 May 1975 that ‘the party is over’. Central government funding available for the nursery education building programme for 1975–76 was almost half that of the previous year.

The late 1990s and early 2000s was another moment of promise. In 1998 the New Labour government launched the first National Childcare Strategy, which aimed to deliver quality, affordable and accessible childcare in every neighbourhood. From 1998 all four-year-olds in England were entitled to a free place in a maintained school reception class from the September following their fourth birthday. In 2004 this was extended to all three-year-olds. Early-years services formed an important part of the 2010-2015 coalition government’s family policy with the coalition agreement supporting the provision of free nursery care and the launch of a free nursery scheme for disadvantaged two-year-olds. However, this scheme was to be financed at the expense of Sure Start with plans to close more than 125 Sure Start children’s centres

Current Conservative government policy seems to be characterised by the desire to increase the number of children attending nursery education, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but a reluctance to fund it. Their call to nursery providers for ideas about how to increase the number of funded hours for three-year-olds from fifteen to thirty, in line with their manifesto promise, seems emblematic of their quandary.

July 23, 2015

Working Parents and Childcare

The History and Policy Parenting Forum held a fascinating roundtable last Wednesday on the theme of ‘Working Parents and Childcare: A Historical Perspective’. We had a really good discussion around the questions: ‘​​How do we explain the historically low-level of state investment in pre-school childcare in Britain since the Second World War?’, ‘Why have British governments, including social-democratic ones, never prioritised childcare policy, in contrast to other West European states?’, ‘Where significant progress has ​been made, e.g. under New Labour in the 1990s/2000s, what have been the drivers behind it?’, and ‘How has policy regarding childcare affected the lives of mothers, fathers and children at different moments in time?’.

The roundtable took place to mark the publication of my new book Pre-school childcare in England, 1939–2010 in which I have investigated how competing ideas about the physical and mental wellbeing of young children influenced the provision, practice and experience of childcare outside the home in between 1939 and 2010. Looking at childcare outside the home in four different forms: day nurseries, nursery schools and classes, playgroups, and childminders, the book navigates how both individual families and wider society managed the care of young children in the context of dramatic increases in the employment of mothers. Childcare always seems to be a controversial subject and one that remains in the public eye. In the book I explore the relationship between current perspectives and past attitudes; and consider how uncovering the history of childcare might help those working with children today.

April 13, 2015

Sheila Kitzinger 1929–2015

Sad news today that the birth educator and campaigner Sheila Kitzinger has died. Sheila had been an influential figure in promoting choice for women in childbirth for over 50 years. Several of the women I interviewed for my book Modern Motherhood had been aware of Kitzinger’s work and commented upon it. Sheila herself was based in Oxfordshire where my research took place. A small number of the women I spoke with had also attended the childbirth preparation classes that Sheila had run. Responding to an appeal from the NCT for women to show pregnant women how to breathe and relax for labour Sheila ran the first couples’ classes in the country from the late-1950s. Generally the women I spoke with thought Sheila's work was a very good thing. Emily remembered Kitzinger as being a highly significant figure. ‘She was the guru and we went to her classes and [my husband] must have been one of the first men to have gone to classes as well.’ Emily held Kitzinger in high regard and thought ‘she was a very, very inspirational writer, and she interviewed us all and followed us all up and all the rest of it so that was important, a very important feature of the time.’ There were some mixed feelings among my interviewees about the classes though. Monika said: ‘Sheila Kitzinger was carrying on about this, and natural childbirth was a great cry. I wasn’t at all sold on natural childbirth, I thought the easier the better thankyou very much.’ Claire attended a class but was unsure about it. When asked what it was like she replied, ‘Oh we saw photographs of Sheila giving birth, surrounded by dogs and with Sheila in the middle…But I only went to one class.’ Perhaps the most interesting recollection came from Grace who attended Kitzinger’s classes and found them ‘very supportive’ and appreciated the opportunity to meet ‘other mums in the same position’. However she also recalled that ‘when I had a caesarean I terribly felt I’d let her down which was perhaps silly but that’s how it was, it was a great shock.’

February 16, 2015

History and Policy Parenting Forum Workshops

Writing about web page http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/chm/outreach/parenting/events/workshops

Today we have the second of three History and Policy Parenting Workshops which we are running with support from the HRC Impact Fund at Warwick. The workshops are principally aimed at people currently working/volunteering with children but are open to researchers too. We had our first workshop on 15 December wirh Joan Haig (Warwick) as our guest speaker. Joan led a fascinating session on the theme of working with families from ethnic and religious minority backgrounds. Today's workshop will be on the theme of engaging with fathers. JulieMarie Strange (Manchester) is leading the session and will talk generally on the subject as well as giving examples from her own research on fatherhood in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Can't wait!

November 14, 2014

Transforming Pregnancy since 1900

I was very fortunate to be involved in co-editing a special edition of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences on 'Transforming Pregnancy since 1900' with Salim Al-Gailani. The years since 1900 have witnessed significant transformations in understandings of pregnancy. As we note in the introduction to the volume in 1900, 'few pregnant women in Western Europe or North America had any contact with a medical practitioner before going into labour. By the end the twentieth century, the hospitalisation of childbirth, the legalisation of abortion and a host of biomedical technologies from the Pill and IVF to obstetric ultrasound and prenatal diagnosis had dramatically extended the reach of science and medicine into human reproduction.' The volume originated from a conference we held in Cambridge on the same theme where we explored different aspects of pregnancy care, and experiences over the century. While the volume builds on existing research into maternity, it also moves beyond traditional accounts by examining relations among pregnant women, less researched medical professionals, the broader healthcare industries and lay groups.

September 17, 2014

Birth: personal stories to population policies

Writing about web page http://www.birth.leeds.ac.uk/

On Thursday and Friday I will be going to a conference at Leeds on Birth organised by Alex Bamji and Laura King. It looks like it's going to be a really fascinating couple of days. The programme looks amazingly interesting and varied - from a paper on fertility and infant mortality in fifteenth-century royal families to one on birth outcomes in twentieth-century East Africa! As a whole the conference will focus on the experience of birth throughout history from different angles - from personal stories to population policies. I will be giving a paper on maternity amongst Jewish women in Palestine under the British Mandate. In the paper I will try to combine both these aspects - the personal and the political - by looking at the role of the Jewish community in maternity care and how it acted as an intermediary between women themselves and British Imperial rule. Looking forward to Thursday!

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