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Social Justice

Work or child care? The summer holiday struggle facing parents

Summer holidays are filling increasing numbers of parents with dread as they struggle to balance low-paying work with looking after their kids.

School holidays are meant to be the dizzy height of childhood, long summer days which never seem to end full of sunburn and ice cream and memories which last a lifetime.

But for an increasing number of parents, summer holidays are fraught with anxiety, caught in the paradox of finding an income to maintain a home and looking after the children who inhabit it.

School holidays in Scotland start a month earlier than the rest of the country, from June 25. One in four Scottish children live in poverty, according to the latest figures, and almost 70 per cent of those live in a household where someone works.

“For kids, summer holidays should be great, that school bell should ring and you should dance out the gates because you think you’re going to have fun, see more of your pals, do what you like doing,” says Chris Birt, deputy director for Scotland at poverty-fighting charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “For too many families in poverty that’s not possible.”

Summer brings a combination of challenges for families trapped in poverty, Birt says, and housing, food and childcare are chief among them.

Without school meals, often either kids go hungry or their parents do instead. More than 7,000 children in Scotland were living in temporary accommodation at the start of the pandemic, a figure that rises to almost 130,000 children in England, according to the Local Government Association. Half of children in poverty in the UK live in single parent households. And, when children aren’t old enough to look after themselves, childcare can cost hundreds of pounds a week.

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So what’s the choice? Join the millions on universal credit, but keep earnings below the £7,400 per year which qualifies the kids for free school meals? Or go all out and look for full-time employment and hope it’s enough to cover exorbitant childcare costs?

This isn’t to say there’s no support out there, stresses Birt, but the combination of a safety net worn thin after a decade of austerity and wages too low to keep people afloat are creating a crisis point for families in the summer months.

The Scottish government has given local authorities £20m in funding for food and activities for the poorest children across the holidays. The Westminster government has also promised support to parents in the holidays, after much campaigning by Marcus Rashford, for the Easter, summer and Christmas holidays. But its own guidance states the funding allows a local authority to provide “the equivalent of at least 4 hours a day, 4 days a week, 6 weeks a year”.

That support is available for children who would otherwise be getting free school meals, but barely covers half holiday days across the school year, and even then not in a way that is always useful for parents, says Birt.

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“Say if you’re getting three- or four-hour blocks of child care, a childcare provider says you can get a 9 to 12 slot at a nursery. What job are you going to get that fits in that 9 to 12 slot?,” he says. “You might have to get a bus or a train to get there. Are you going to work for an hour and then go and pick up your kids?

“There is such a disconnect between the labour market and childcare provision.”

The gig economy, where freelancers can choose their own hours as a taxi driver or delivery driver might seem like a viable option in this scenario.

Zero-hour contracts might be heralded by bosses as giving workers greater freedom but, as Birt points out, “it doesn’t give people the freedom to be sick or go on holiday”. And in-work poverty hit record levels over the pandemic with nearly one in five working households in the UK living in poverty. It is a damning indictment of a broken system.

“We need a social security system that is there to help you if life comes along and challenges you, like it will for everyone,” Birt says.

“But people want to work, people want good jobs. We need to make work a proper route of poverty.”

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