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National shortage in childcare threatens labour market flexibility

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Acording to a review of the sector by Genderquake and Demos, the national Childcare Strategy is failing to meet its own targets of a million new childcare places by 2004. The government estimates that another 150,000 qualified childcare workers will be needed, and independent sources put the number even higher.

According to the review, delivery of the strategy is being hampered by bureaucratic local partnerships and a failure to stimulate entrepreneurial sources of supply. The number of registered childminders fell by a third during the 1990s, leaving working parents increasingly in difficulties. Professional childcare providers are also said to be slow in adapting beyond nine-to-five arrangements.

"We must stop treating childcare as a burden that society has to bear grudgingly just so women can be allowed to go back to work," says Helen Wilkinson, author of Creche Barriers, which provides the first proper assessment of the government's strategy. "There is an opportunity to grow a new and dynamic industry which can meet the needs of today's working families and at the same time provide employment and socially responsible business opportunities. But the government needs to enable childcare entrepreneurs - starting with parents themselves - to create new provision in imaginative ways. Childcare is good for kids, families and the economy."

Currently family members bear some of the burden, but the reiew also shows that many grandparents are unhappy with the amount of childcare that is falling to them.

In the UK the state contributes less to childcare provision than in almost every other major economy, while British parents pay the highest childcare costs in Europe - typically £6000 for a family with two children. The review suggests more entrepreneurial approaches to create affordable, diverse provision, through: commercial childcare providers; company schemes catering for both employees and the wider community; community parent schemes and mutuals, and by encouraging other forms of entrepreneurship.

The main recommendations in Creche Barriers include:
- Creating a national childcare agency, which would encourage public/private partnership and act as an incubator for new schemes
- Tax breaks for employers to invest in employee and community childcare provision
- Creating a dedicated childcare fund to attract and channel investment into expanding provision
- A recruitment campaign aimed specifically at men who currently make up a tiny proportion of childcare workers (5 per cent of playworkers and less than 1 per cent of nursery nurses are male).

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