Women, Work and Childcare: Today’s Overton Window

ALASTAIR CRAIN for Distilled Post

It’s 14:30pm. Most working mums are either leaving work, making school dinners or planning pick up routes to be school gates at 15.30pm.


I recall my own mother mum making similar journeys over 20 years ago, balancing her own life and racing to collect my younger brother after a long day of work. On the days I can manage to get to pick up for my own toddler, I see countless mothers struggling with some of the same challenges experienced by my mum over two decades ago. In parallel, some parents at 16:30 are ensuring they have the checklist of snacks, which need to be purchased from supermarkets or the local corner for pickup at nursery.


For the lucky mums who can afford to have their toddlers in full time nursery, the challenge of rising living costs is extraordinary. This creates its own challenge for families. Millions are all struggling with the cost of care and support for their children and outside of the child tax credit, which sadly does not apply to all working families. This is a real mess and needs to be properly addressed.


Over the past decades we have seen changes in multiple sectors, where changes in society have moved faster than policy and, have themselves, gone on to affect policy. Education policy is a nominal example. By and large, our society agrees that providing children with a formal education is a good thing. However, accomplishing and executing on this policy is a wide-open question.


Policy Changing with the Times: the Overton Window

The Overton Window is a model for understanding how ideas in society change overtime and influence politics. The core concept is that politicians are limited in what policy ideas they can support — they generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options. These policies lie inside the Overton Window.


It should come as no surprise that sweeping reforms are generally enacted on a burning platform. Such triggers act like the outermost tentacles of some dim future reaching through the veil, imposing an immediate cost for inaction. Classically, long-term problems prove tricky to grip because they tend to share a set of thorny traits in common. Almost always politically or intellectually contested, such problems span multiple parts of government—while the costs and benefits are dislocated in time. That means paying upfront for future benefit.


So, what policies support the voices of families, and particularly those of mums and women in the workplace? As part of a recent survey by openDemocracy, which collected responses from over 500 mothers across the UK, the real policy ask here is giving additional support to families during the Winter crisis. According Claire Kenyon, mother and owner of a Montessori school in Lincolnshire, families are struggling to stay afloat of childcare costs for several reasons.They have to pay business rates on childcare centres, can’t claim back VAT on purchases and are facing soaring costs for electricity, food and rent.


“We are an incredibly giving community of people who are on our knees,” Kenyon said. “The early childhood education sector is grossly underfunded. We are now in a recession, with cost-of-living hikes including electricity bills going through the roof, and yet zero additional support to nurseries from the government – they don't really stand a chance.


"So they need to pass those increases on to parents. The blame lies firmly at the door of Number 10.”



How has the Overton Window shifted for working mums and families?

For many parents in England the cost of nursery or a childminder is as great as their rent or mortgage. There are now more hours free to parents than a decade ago, but family finances are also facing their biggest squeeze in a generation.

Currently, financial support for parents exists in the form of tax-free childcare up to £2,000 a year. Most parents earning up to £100,000 and working 16 hours or more are eligible. But this falls well short of average annual costs. For a child under two, the average cost of a part-time childcare place is £138.70 a week or £7,210 a year. Take-up is low. Some 391,000 families claimed it in June of this year, compared to the 1.3million eligible for it. It is not until the term after most children turn three that parents also receive 30 hours of free childcare during term time.

So, the care and early years learning of pre-school children is becoming a hot political issue. It could be one of the big battlegrounds ahead of the next election. Given current pressures on families across Britain and beyond, policy now needs to speak to lived issues, strains and challenges on the everyman household. It's clear to see that we’ve moved far beyond the Overton Window on how we think about taxes and traditional forms of family support. Now, it is time that we shift it onto childcare and welfare.