Opinion Former Article

ESRC: Limited childcare options for working class mums

Due to cash shortages, public, not private, childcare provision is the only option for many working class parents who are in employment.

In many communities in the UK, childcare is available through public, voluntary and private nursery provision, and through a network of home-based childminders. However, although affluent middle class parents are in a position to choose their preferred childcare option, research funded by the Economic and Research Council (ESRC), has highlighted that working class parents, constrained by low income, are largely restricted to state-run day nurseries only.

The research, carried out by the Centre for Critical Education Policy Studies, at the Institute of Education, sought to throw light on how working class parents in two areas of London make arrangements for looking after under-fives, and investigated the childcare choices available to them. Parents from 70 families in the Stoke Newington and Battersea areas of London took part in the study. The research also explored the parents' views on what constitutes 'good' mothering and balancing the demands of family and employment.

"State day nurseries are overwhelmingly used by working class parents, but wealthier parents can choose from a diversity of childcare provision available in the private sector," said Dr Carol Vincent who took the lead role in the research. "This segregated provision raises concerns over affordability of care, as such a high percentage of care costs fall on the parent in the UK. We concluded that the working class families who took part really have very little choice in provider."

Despite the lack of options, it was found that participating families viewed day nurseries favourably because of the developmental opportunities and security they offered to young children. However, they were unwilling to criticise carers, or raise any concerns that they might have. Tax credits allowed many of the women interviewed to take up jobs but because of low wages, they were limited to cheaper childcare.

"We found the mothers in our research were often caught between two conflicting positions; being a 'good' mother, or being a 'good' worker," said Dr Vincent. "If they were in work, they had to balance having reduced time at home, with being an ideal mum."

In the workplace, many of the women were in occupations that offered little flexibility in working hours. Hardly any of the mothers referred to employers' formal childcare policies, but it was felt that personal relationships established with line mangers were crucial in enabling them to carry out their mothering responsibilities easily. In a situation repeated across social class groups, most of the women were the primary carers at home, while the men took on only an ancillary role when it came to looking after the children and performing household tasks.

The research demonstrates clearly the tensions for working class mothers in trying to maintain both their commitments at work and to their families. Policymakers should be encouraged that few experienced difficulties in accessing childcare, but should be concerned about the growing divide between the under-fives of 'have' and 'have-not' parents.

Dr Carol Vincent on Tel: 020 7612 6915, e-mail: c.vincent@ioe.ac.uk

ESRC Press Office:
Alexandra Saxon on Tel: 01793 413032, e-mail: alexandra.saxon@esrc.ac.uk
Danielle Moore on Tel: 01793 413312; e-mail: mailto:danielle.moore@esrc.ac.uk


1. The research project 'Local Childcare Cultures: Working class families and pre-school child care' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Dr Carol Vincent, Professor Stephen Ball and Annette Braun (research assistant) of the Centre for Critical Education Policy Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, 59 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0NT.

2. Methodology. The research was conducted in two inner London areas: Stoke Newington in the borough of Hackney, and Battersea in south London. Respondents included parents from 70 families, 36 in Battersea and 34 in Stoke Newington, and 18 childcare providers. The majority of interviews were conducted with mothers. In total, 110 face-to-face interviews were undertaken during the project, involving 103 people.

3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research relevant to business, the public sector and voluntary organisations. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2007 - 08 is £181 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

4. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peer review. This research has been graded as good.

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