From rising childcare costs to benefit delays, for many, the summer holidays are far from fun. It's time we changed thatby Emily Morris / July 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
School’s out for summer, but it’s not good news for everyone. The six-week summer stretch off might sound fun, but for low-income parents, it’s a logistical and financial nightmare—and for many children, it means going desperately hungry.
For working parents, there’s the childcare issue. I often hear people counting down the months or even years until their small children start school, believing things will get easier when they do. But the fact is that school holiday childcare is expensive, complicated and often very hard to find.
Most schools are off for 13 weeks a year, whereas the average job offers four weeks’ annual leave. That’s a lot of weeks of children having no one to look after them.
I’m a single parent, and I got a big shock when my son started school nursery at 3. Private nursery had been my biggest outlay after rent, but it was designed for working parents.
Suddenly, I was expected to be around for 3pm pick-ups, midday assemblies and morning story time—and when the school broke up for the holidays, I didn’t know what I was going to do.
I was lucky enough to get a job working from home, but still found myself juggling deadlines and conference calls with a bored little boy. Mum helped me out when she could, but she lived 45 miles away and had her own commitments.
One summer, there was a soccer school at the local recreation ground. It wasn’t free, but it was somewhere I could send my son while I worked. The only trouble was that he wasn’t into football.
Still, I found myself dropping him off, leaving him in the care of a shouty instructor, for a day of doing something he didn’t like. It finished at 3:30pm—a pick-up time that I could manage, but that would have been useless for most 9-5 workers.
That was six years ago, but the lack of school holiday childcare is still a huge issue. In a recent survey by the Family and Childcare Trust, only one in four local authorities said that there was sufficient childcare available in their locality.
Rising childcare costs
Even where childcare is readily available, it’s unaffordable for many. Further research by the Family and Childcare trust found that the average cost of school holiday childcare in the UK is £133 per child per week—a four per cent rise since 2017.
What’s more, the childcare element of Universal Credit is paid out in arrears, meaning parents having to pay the bill for summer childcare before they can claim back help towards the costs.
When Gingerbread, the national single parent charity, conducted a survey on the challenge of childcare, almost half of respondents said they had borrowed money from friends, family or formal lenders to cover the costs.
Parents who aren’t in work can face difficulties, too. Whilst they don’t have to source childcare, they do have to feed and entertain their children during the school holidays. For those whose children are in receipt of free school meals, this can be incredibly hard.
Days without a proper meal
Last year, the All Parliamentary Action Group on Hunger estimated that the absence of free school meals in the holidays costs between £30 and £40 per child, per week. They heard about a group of children whose “bodies simply gave up on them” during a summer football activity; none had eaten a proper meal in the days running up to the tournament.
Anti-poverty charity the Trussell Trust found that in summer 2016, 4,412 more emergency food supplies were given to children in July and August than in May and June.
Scotland and Wales both have devolved schemes offering lunch clubs during school holidays, but currently there is nothing in England. Anti-hunger charity Feeding Britain has just secured funding to pilot running lunch and activity clubs in deprived areas across England this summer. It’s a step forward, but it’s not yet mandatory or nationwide.
In the meantime, some churches, the Trussell Trust and other foodbanks open their doors to provide meals—but all rely on space, donations and volunteers.
Things need to change
Many parents, then, find themselves caught in a trap. Recent research from the Trussell Trust found that the biggest and fastest-growing reason for foodbank use is benefit payments not covering everyday essentials. The threat of sanctions places huge pressure on claimants to work, yet many parents simply can’t find jobs that fit with their responsibilities.
Gingerbread says that a lack of affordable and adequate childcare is one of the biggest barriers to lone parents who want to enter or re-enter employment. Insufficient funds to cover essentials and often impossible goals: it’s clear that Universal Credit isn’t working.
Things need to change. Benefits must keep up with the rising cost of essentials like childcare and food, and the childcare element of Universal Credit should be paid in advance of school holidays.
Not only that, childcare needs to be made available, and children who have free school meals must be provided with food and entertainment in the school holidays.
We can only hope that the Feeding Britain pilot is a success, and that lunch clubs are soon available to all. Until then, for thousands of low-income families, the school holidays will be a long way from fun.