The missing piece in Scotland’s business infrastructure: childcare

Today marks the Scottish Women’s Business and Enterprise Conference in Glasgow. I won’t be in attendance, as I had already booked in to a professional development opportunity elsewhere before I had heard about it. But I do have two cents to offer on my experience in women’s enterprise.

If you were to ask me today what my business needs to expand to the next level, my answer now would be the same answer I would have given you two years ago, and four years ago, and six years ago. It isn’t property, employee training, or a grant. It isn’t public contracts, networking opportunities, or advertising.

It’s childcare.

Let me explain: I have no childcare. And I have no childcare because there is no childcare.

Since I started my business six years ago, everything I have done has been accomplished with a baby, then a toddler, and now a rambunctious primary schooler underfoot. This is not because of a lack of initiative on my part. One vital part of any nation’s business infrastructure – childcare – simply does not exist in the way it needs to Scotland. For my family, there is nothing and there is no one.

For far too many of us, formal, structured, and private childcare simply does not exist. But the problem isn’t just a lack of facilities: it’s in the attitude behind it. Scotland retains a parochial mentality towards childcare which I have come to call “ma sister’s watchin’ the wean.” Childcare, here, is officially seen as the family’s job. It is openly assumed, and expected, that you have an entourage on hand – that you are a veritable Mem Sahib – and that your clan stands ready and willing to “watch the wean.” Failing to have that extended family on hand, or their inability to “watch the wean”, is tantamount to antisocial behavior: you have literally defied the social order by being different.

Childcare is a vital part of a nation’s business infrastructure, as critical as roads and cables and safety legislation. Yet our parochial mentality, paired with overfamiliar condescension – a female Council childcare official exclaimed “Whit, hen, huv ye no goat any family tae watch the wean?” to me – means that childcare is not seen within the context of business infrastructure or enterprise. It has somehow become an extension of social work and education. And it isn’t.

You would think it would be obvious. You can’t finish a project, meet new contacts, hire employees, broker a deal, travel to learn, or go where you need to be if you have to be back at school at 3.

Yet here, nobody sees that, and nobody cares.

Doing my best

I am not from Scotland and have no family or childhood friends here. My Scottish husband has no extended family, and the sole grandparent is disabled and barely able to walk. When you hear a successful professional woman credit her career to the childcare help she gets from her family, and add that she don’t know where she’d be without it: well, she’d be me.

My lack of childcare was not for want of trying. I started my business when my child was five months old. I live in a town with no private nurseries. I don’t drive, and the nearest private nursery in my local authority is over half an hour away on a bus that only travels once an hour. That ruled out nurseries.

When my child was a baby, she was turned down for a place at the only Council facility that exists in my town for under-3s on the grounds that I was not on the social work register, a drug addict, or a single mother. Every time I phoned for an update, the first question they would ask was “Are you still not a single parent?” What exactly do they mean by ‘still not’? At one point my husband and I considered gaming the system by telling them that we had split up – a fact which would have pushed me higher up the list. When I explained that I needed childcare because I was trying to get a few hours every day to work for a living, a Council childcare official literally laughed at me and exclaimed “Nurseries aren’t for working parents!”

Nurseries aren’t for working parents: our attitude towards childcare in a nutshell.

Following that rejection, my child’s health visitors offered to put me in front of the social work panel to appeal for a childcare place. They even offered to groom me in what to say to the panel: buzzwords like “stressed” and “can’t cope” would strengthen my case.

And that is sick.

I refused to have any part in it, and so I went without any childcare until my child got the state-mandated 2 1/2 hours a day in a Council nursery from the age of three. Try doing a day’s work, plus prospecting, in two and a half hours.

In those three years I still tried. I spent a day in a professionally registered childminder’s house giving her a trial. Her idea of making pleasant conversation with me was to make bigoted and disparaging comments about the parents of the child in her care. (This is generally not a good way to sell your services.) It was a hot summer’s day and I had to give the poor kid a cold drink myself, as the childminder openly resented the helpless two year old for being born who she is. I walked into her house not sure whether to hire her; I left her house not sure whether to report her to the authorities. Thus ended my experiment with a childminder.

One Council official told me my childcare woes would be solved soon because a private property developer was opening a private nursery within sight of my house. Well, six years, subsidence, and a change of ownership later and the nursery still has not opened, and the building is still a muddy construction site. In the time they spent playing at property developers, my child went from the pram all the way to primary school. No parent, in any case, can map a career plan based on what a third party might do sometime in the future.

Then there was the other private nursery. I got very excited when gossip spread around my town that a private nursery was finally going to open on one of the town’s central streets, in a building already hosting a soft play. Could this miracle be too good to be true? Well, yes it was, and for all the wrong reasons: a notorious Glasgow gangster was behind the venture, doing it in his wife’s name, of course. Parenting is a minefield of moral choices. Leaving your precious child in a crime syndicate’s money laundering front should not have to be one of them. In any event, that nursery never opened up either.

My child is now in primary school. There are no after-school services or kids’ clubs in my local authority; two brief sport-specific activities will have given me a total of 10 extra hours over the whole school year. This means that, come hell or high water, I have to be at the school gate at 9 and again at 3. I can’t do networking lunches, seminars, or undertake business travel. If something is professionally necessary, like the conference I am attending today, my husband has to take the day off work. And there are only so many times he can do that a year.

Were my child’s school to offer after-school care or a kids’ club I would jump at the chance. And I would not expect it to be handed to me free of charge, or subsidised: I would expect to pay for the service, and I would willingly do so. Yet Scotland’s obsession with universalism means that they will not allow a service to exist on a paid-fee basis. If they can’t hand it out free from the magic money tree, it can’t happen.

And so my business, and my stress levels, will simply have to continue as they always have.

Where to begin?

I asked a local politician who had looked after him as a child. He shrugged and replied “I went to my granny’s after school.” And that’s a very revealing insight. Is it any wonder that politicians see neither the need nor the urgency for childcare, when their own experiences are grounded in a world of perpetual family dependence?

I've literally lost my head, I'm that busy.
I’ve literally lost my head, I’m that busy.

Tellingly, my local Council is about to commence work on a revamp of our town centre. In addition to a new supermarket, the 1970s sports centre will be revamped and expanded to hold a cafe, the local library, and offices for “employability staff.” But they are not adding a nursery. In visualising the town centre of the future, childcare – the entry ticket to employability – never even crossed their minds. And why would it? Does yer maw no watch the wean, hen?

Our politicians – local, Scottish, and national – are proud to keep our society mired in a backwards and parochial past. They exist in the world of the soap operas, where everyone lives and works on the same street where they were raised, and all their parents and siblings are one building away. The grannies of their generation probably never worked outside the war. Today’s grannies always have worked, and still do. Or, as in my family, they may be too ill to walk, much less take on childcare. They may live too far away. They may have a life of their own. Or they may exercise their perfectly valid right to say: I did parenting once. I’m not doing it again.

So why is childcare simply not recognised in Scotland as a vital part of our nation’s business infrastructure? Why is there no push to build private nurseries? Why aren’t Councils building for-profit facilities? Why don’t schools offer after-school clubs? Why are gangsters the only people interested in opening private nurseries? Why are women who enquire about childcare patronised with the “och, hen” attitude – and that’s just from women! – rather than given the help they need?

Let’s talk money. Why do Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government continue to offer millions of pounds in subsidies to filthy rich multinational corporations like KPMG, Amazon, and Barclays? They’re not exactly poor wee souls that need a handout. And they don’t exactly pay taxes, which limits the money the government has to use for childcare in the first place! How many nurseries, and nursery places, could have been provided with the money we spend bribing the fatcats? How do they expect people to take up those publicly subsidised jobs when there’s no place to put the kids?

And how the hell do we fix this?

As with anything, the solution has to start with attitudes.

Move childcare into the business, enterprise, and employability category. Stop viewing it as an extension of social work and education.

If a woman says she needs childcare for professional reasons, she should be treated and spoken to like a professional, and not patronised with that “och hen” garbage.

If she says she needs childcare because she wants to work, she should not be laughed at by anyone – least of all a Council employee with the word “childcare” in her job title.

Any health professional encouraging you to dumb yourself down for a social work evaluation as a means of getting childcare – to the point where they offer to help groom you to cry crocodile tears to get enough points from the panel – should be struck off and banned from working with children and families for life.

Stop viewing childcare as a zero-sum game. Giving a working mother a childcare place is not taking childcare services away from an unemployed heroin addict.

Stop the obsession with “childcare” as a reference to two, three, and four year olds. Working parents need childcare assistance for nearly a decade beyond that.

Instead of throwing ridiculous amounts of money on bungs for multinationals, let’s provide the infrastructure that literally lets parents get to work in the first place.

And finally, stop politicising childcare, parenting, and indeed, the mere act of being a child in Scotland to the point where an essential business service is not allowed to exist because there are no political points to be made out of it.

The irony should not be lost on anyone that there is a drive right now to make Scotland an independent nation. More than a few of the people craving independence see no irony in their own perpetual dependency on family members for their basic needs, a situation they see as normal and even acceptable. “Independence!!” shout the sort of people – like the politician above – who bought a house on the same street as their parents, and then presume to lecture us about what our childcare priorities should be.

Well, if you want independence, start with yourself, and start at home.

And as for me, well, I’ll see you at the school gate.

I spoke about this issue on Scotland Tonight.

One comment

  1. Would be happy to speak to you about the challenges faced by Childcare providers operating in some Local Authority areas where rental of council premises is the only option for venues . Very little financial assistance or recognition of the importance of parents having access to reliable, affordable services.

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