Monday 2 March 2015

Nursery fees

There’s been a lot of debate on this recently, some of it sensible and objective, most of it raging and irrational.

To listen to some people you’d think that nurseries were a new phenomenon, they’re not. Mill owners started them in the early 1800’s because it was a way of encouraging cheap labour (women) to work for them. I went to a nursery in the ‘60’s. Ok, they were far more informal in those days, usually self organised affairs where a group of mums would be given free access to a church hall and they’d all take turns apiece to look after the kids. As I recall, the downside of this arrangement was that, in lieu of a rental fee for the Church hall, we were all expected to attend Sunday school.

Parents have always needed nurseries in some form - if only to prevent them being driven insane by the incessant chatter of three year old's - and children have always needed them in order to develop the social skills that will be essential in a few years time when they start school. All that has really changed is the formality of the nursery and the degree of need of the parents.

In an ideal world women really would have a genuine choice to either work or stay at home and look after the kids. In reality most households now rely on two wages, they might not need two full-time working wages but the vast majority of women – and let’s face it the difficulties here are usually dumped on the women – have to earn a wage and, by definition, this means someone else looking after their children for at least a few hours each week.

The other more recent change is the amount of legislation now surrounding nurseries. These were all brought in for the right reasons but they all seem to be based on the idea that parents aren’t capable of distinguishing between a good and a bad nursery by themselves. So, in theory at least, all nurseries are now wonderful places for your children but, as a direct result of this legislation, are far more expensive.

Anyone who’s paid any attention to the nursery debate will have heard at least one person say “If you can’t afford to bring up your kids don’t have any!” 

In an ideal world we would all be able to sit down with a big bag of popcorn and watch the man who uttered this comment explain to his young, broody, wife how she can’t have a baby because interest rates are set to rise and the car needs new tyres. I could be wrong but I suspect it would be a blood and gore spectacle of epic proportions.

No, for the majority of couples, having a child is not a wholly rational decision driven by a spreadsheet and economic predictions, if it was I suspect London would now be a small village populated entirely by the gentry, all having to cook and clean for themselves because the poor had become extinct. Most of us enter parenthood well aware that we will be broke for at least a few years, in fact most people will go through a period in their lives when things aren’t going so well and a helping hand would be appreciated.

And after all, that’s all we’re talking about; a few years. Why should a couple’s entire life be affected by the fact that they can’t afford to get through the first few years of a child’s life without some help?

Which leads me on to another popular comment in this debate, namely “Why should I pay for other people’s children to go to nursery?”

One of the people who came out with this statement was Stephen Davies, of the Institute for Economic Affairs, which begs the question why is he still in a job as he patently doesn’t understand how tax works. Just for Mr Davies, let’s have a brief look at the concept of tax.

Most of us love the idea of good roads, fires that get put out before the entire town burns down, police that keep ourselves and our property vaguely safe, schools that produce roughly intelligent children, armed forces that give us a fighting chance of still living in our own country tomorrow and a health care system that tries its best to ensure we’re still breathing when the new day dawns.

People from the right of politics usually suggest that government and taxation shouldn’t be involved with these things and that we should all just pay for them directly, usually because they can afford to. They see little wrong with the idea that you should flash your credit card before the fireman turns on the water, primarily because they have every intention of owning one of more of the fire stations involved.

However, most of us wouldn’t be able to afford these basics by ourselves, so we all pay into the tax pot and take out of the pot dependant on need. Some of us contribute far more than we take out, some of us take out far more than we put in. Some people think that’s unfair, some think that it creates a more level playing field and a better and happier society, which ultimately benefits us all.

So when people say “Why should I pay for your child’s nursery place?” I ask why they think that I should pay for their children’s school place when I have no kids at school or why I should pay for their hospital stay when I’m perfectly healthy.

Surely, in any sane world, we would all accept that bringing up a young family is a short but financially taxing period in any couple’s lives and that is makes sense to help them out through these few, short, years? I think this is especially important when we’ve gone out of our way to manufacture a society that pretty much insists that women should work and labels those who stay at home to look after their children as somehow “unemployed” at best and “scroungers” at worst.

The last comment you always hear is “If it’s too expensive don’t work”, which once again appears to be the reflections of a person that doesn’t like to get too involved with thinking and who would probably be at the front of the queue accusing you of being a lazy scrounger if you ever did decide to take them up on the offer.

Yes, for some, work is just a mundane, drudgery, that - pay-cheque aside - has few if any redeeming features and if this is your situation I’d suggest that a five year break – if you can afford it – wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. However, for most of us work brings far more than just money and if you’ve just spent the last ten years fighting your way up the corporate ladder you are probably not entirely happy about the prospect of starting all over again in five years time – which is almost certainly what would happen.

If you want to build your career then the most you are realistically going to get away with is a year off work, followed by a few years of part-time work and then back full time until you croak or retire – whichever comes first. And that is if you have a very understanding and appreciative employer!

So it’s not really a question of being able to afford the nursery today, it’s a question of being forced to pay out more than you earn now in order to have any hope of a decent salary in the future.

It just seems an impossible situation; we complain that women are under-represented in the higher echelons of business and government but them give them the choice of look after your children or build a career - try to juggle the two and you’ll most probably be accused of being both a poor mother and a slacker at work.

The age at which children are going to nursery is a side effect of all this. There are now one and two year olds spending most of their time in the care of others. I’d be shocked if the parents of these children had freely opted for this arrangement because I suspect it’s not that good for either the child or the parents. In reality they probably felt they had little or no choice in the matter and that this arrangement was the best of a poor bunch. Sadly, until government and business open their eyes and realise that they bear much of the responsibility for this situation, little is going to change.

I remember in the ‘80’s that crèches where all the rage. People talked about all businesses having one. Ok, your child might still be being looked after by someone else but you would be able to pop in from time to time during the day and were only ever a short run away if there was an emergency. It sounded ideal... right up to the point that business decided that looking after the needs of their workforce was not their responsibility. I dare say some forward thinking companies do provide crèches but I imagine that they are very much in the minority these days.

On a personal level this debate isn’t too much of a concern. We changed our careers deliberately to give us more flexibility and far more time with our boy. We knew there would be a financial hit involved with this move - although in truth we didn’t realise quite how hard a hit it would turn out to be - but we figured it was worth it – which it has been.

We are also fortunate enough to have my mother living just down the road, so if I can’t cover for my wife, she will usually pop over and feed Marty cake and biscuits until we return. As a result Marty didn’t have to go to nursery until he was three, by which time the government was happy to pay for 15 hours a week, which is generally enough for us.

We also live in a fairly rural area so nursery costs here bear little resemblance to those in London, where they could readily be mistaken for a defence budget.

I find this more than a little odd though. Virtually every person I’ve ever seen working in a nursery is either on, or is very close to, the minimum wage. So where is all this money going to?

Is there a nursery mogul somewhere, sipping pina colada on his 50ft yacht and haggling down the phone in a fiendish attempt to corner the market in Pampers and Calpol?