Anna Stewart, mother of two-year-old Shayne, belongs to a close, extended family, and neither wants nor needs “affordable childcare”. However, she believes Chancellor Gordon Brown’s working-tax credits, which top up the incomes of working and self-employed people on low earnings, and child-tax credits – which support families with children – have helped her make ends meet while working part-time and taking care of her son.
Mother and grandmother Betty Culber concedes that her family’s lot “hasn’t got any worse” during Labour’s first two terms. But she is critical of the party’s promised “tidal wave of choice”.
“You don’t want a choice of three schools – you just want the local school to be good, ” she says.
The C-word looks set to define the election campaign, but pressure group Children In Scotland would prefer to see less emphasis on Treasury measures such as the child trust funds (which pay pounds-250 to each new- born child) and tax credits. They’d rather money was channelled into a state-owned system similar to Sweden’s. There, affordable childcare and education between 8am and 6pm is provided for all children from the age of one at local schools.
Swedish childcare workers are trained as teachers and paid at the same rate.
The Scottish National Party want child-tax credit abolished. They would prefer to see rural schools turned into broad-based children’s centres, serving the wider community. Support should be targeted at the suppliers of childcare, not handed to parents, says education spokeswoman Fiona Hyslop:
“The UK model means creating demand by providing cash to buy expensive, inaccessible childcare.”
The Tories, meanwhile, are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They are pro-choice, and as education spokesman Lord James DouglasHamilton explains: “We want to see the childcare allowance paid to the parent automatically, so that they can choose how to spend it.”
That would make it effectively a tax break, which could be passed on to friends and family rather than a registered childcare provider. Currently, the recipient of childcare credit has to be named to the Inland Revenue.
On Lismore, turning the small local school into a state-subsidised children’s centre could prove a popular idea.
Attendance at the school is small – currently 13 in primary with a few more in pre-school – but it is of huge importance to the community.
Islanders are worried about a council plan to sell off the schoolhouse, which may make it harder to recruit a new teacher when the present one retires.
They would love to see the school reinvented like the Borgen Community Centre in Norway. Scandinavians pay high taxes, but around 2-per cent of gross national product (GNP) is spent on childcare, compared with 0.5-per cent in Scotland.
According to Bronwen Cohen, director of Children In Scotland, who visited Borgen on a fact-finding trip, “families get a lot back”.
The centre has a “nature kindergarten” at which children spend most of their time outdoors, climbing trees or catching fish and cooking them over an open fire. The same campus also has a school, a church, a health centre and a youth activity centre. “Staggered timetables and the absence of any school bell made it more like visiting a hotel than a school, ” she reports.
She concedes that the programme’s potentially hazardous activities might not be welcome in risk-averse Britain, but argues it offers an effective way to improve the health and wellbeing of children.
Lismore resident Jessie Stewart, 79, says more outdoor play would help counteract children’s growing consumption of television. “When we were young we were never bored, ” she says.
“We would go away up the hill and play shops and houses. It was great fun.”
Older children on Lismore face another key problem. Presently, like many pre-teens on Scotland’s smaller islands, they leave home aged 11 or 12 for the mainland, where they attend secondary school and spend weeknights in a hostel.
Anna Stewart remembers struggling with the transition. “It is even harder for incomers, ” she says. Eleven seems younger now than it did a generation ago, and some parents relocate to the mainland rather than wave goodbye to their pre-teens each week. An educational resource centre might create the option of distance-learning for part of the week, allowing secondary pupils to spend more time on the island.
But Beth Campbell’s teenage son Andrew has adjusted so well to life in the hostel that he now finds the quiet island “boring”. She says: “I would really love the teenagers to have somewhere they could get together here”.
“There’s nothing for them here, ” agrees Andrew’s father Dave Cannings, “not even a cafe.”
But as well as seeking more state provision, most low-income parents value the help the working-tax credit gives them to fit employment around their children. Sarah Campbell, who runs an interior design business, owns – with her extended family – a cottage on the island. She spends most school holidays there with her sons Reuben, 10, and Tom, six, and various relatives and friends, while her husband Yorrick Payne often stays at work down south.
She has tailored her hours so that she can spend plenty of time with the boys, although it severely limits what she can earn. In Lismore, they have plenty of opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, going for long walks, scrambling up rocks and having mudfights in the fields.
THEIR neighbour, crofter Duncan Brooks, also obligingly drags the kids around in his quad-bike trailer, which they love. But Campbell worries about Labour’s keynote “extended schools” project, which will provide “wraparound care” until 6pm.
“I don’t think you can fool the kids, ” she says. “It will still feel like school and I think they would get really exhausted by the long day.” She and Payne might use such a facility occasionally, she says; but she would generally prefer to earn less and see her children more.
The extended schools project is to be funded UK-wide by the Department of Work and Pensions, and there are two pilot projects in Scotland, at Woodmill High in Fife and Buckhaven High in Aberdeenshire. Bronwen Cohen of Children In Scotland says: “I think this will only work if schools become different places and are more child-led.”
Janet Law of Scotland’s Out-OfSchool Care Network, however, is very positive about the project. “We support regulation because we think it leads to better quality care, ” she says. She believes the facilities will give children the chance to socialise and access resources they might not have at home. “People have smaller families now, ” she points out, “and children are often not allowed to play out in the street, so when they are at home they can be quite isolated.” Many children will relish the chance to spend more time with school friends.
The Liberal Democrats also support this policy, though they would organise it though education authorities rather than individual schools. They also want to improve the status, training and pay of childcare workers.
In London, where families struggle with heavy mortgages and dual careers, round-the-clock childcare is often a necessity. Increasingly, this is also the picture in urban Scotland.
But here on Lismore, where families mostly get by on much smaller incomes, different choices have often been made. Most mothers here are short of money, but agree that the hardest thing has been isolation, and that finding support networks is the key to making it work.
Sure Start centres – which provide drop-in advice and training for mothers and toddlers – have been targeted at deprived areas in Scotland, so Lismore doesn’t qualify. In England, they will be rolled out further and there is pressure on Holyrood to follow suit. Measures like this may help, but many Lismore parents worry that the trend towards providing more and more childcare could work against what they want to do – which is, in the main, to organise their own children’s lives.
Duncan Brooks, who runs the croft which supports him and his elderly parents, explains the financial pressure he faces. For example, he has to pay pounds-150 to bring one lorry-load of winter feed over on the ferry. He worries reductions in farming subsidy may make crofting unsustainable on the island’s pastures.
Brooks is standing among his herd of pedigree Highland cattle, scratching the spine of a 23-year-old named Capleidh. In an age of agribusiness, this gesture of affection is like an echo from another era.
Out here, at the wet, western edge of Europe, “not much changes”, according to Dave Cannings, an occasional helper on Brooks’s croft. “It doesn’t seem to matter who is in government down there, ” he adds. “Our life goes on much the same.”
THE SINGLE MOTHER
Anna Stewart’s family has lived on the isle of Lismore for generations. A single parent, she works part-time as well as caring for two-year-old Shayne. She used to have another job as a home helper but gave that up when Shayne was born. Receiving working tax credit helps her get by.
When Stewart is working, Shayne is looked after by his 79-year-old grandmother, or by one of his aunts. But they are not registered childminders, so Stewart can’t claim any childcare allowance. When he’s three, Shayne will have a place at the island nursery. His mother doesn’t want to work more hours as she enjoys looking after Shayne.
“We don’t have any complaints, ” she says.
THE TRAVELLING SCHOOLBOY
Beth Campbell’s 14-year-old son, Andrew, has spent weekdays on the mainland since he was 12. He leaves his Lismore home early on Monday morning, stays in a hostel and returns on Friday night. Already benefiting from even more “wraparound care” than is envisaged for mainland children, Andrew enjoys hostel life; friends are on hand to play pool or table tennis. He now finds island life “boring”, but says some of the younger children find the transition a struggle. A home study day on a Friday would allow these children to stay home for almost half the week.
Andrew’s mother is a nurse and a pre-five worker; his father, Dave Cannings, is a seasonal farm worker.
With a joint income of £24,000, they are eligible for a small amount of child tax credit.
THE WORKING PARENTS
Reuben, 10, and Tom, six, live in Dalkeith with their father, Yorrick Payne, a
self-employed joiner, and their mother, Sarah Campbell, who runs an interior design business.
Campbell was a hatmaker until Tom was one, taking him to work each day.
“When he started to walk, I realised it just wasn’t going to work, ” she says.
At that time, Campbell’s business would only just have met the cost of full-time childcare. So she gave it up and stayed at home until Tom’s preschool year. Then the introduction of a childcare allowance enabled her to put him into private nursery a couple of days a week while she set up her business. In term time, she arrives at her studio at 6.30am, leaving dad to take the boys to school and picking them up later. Campbell doesn’t work during school holidays.
The family still benefits from working tax credit. “It just means we’re not in absolute poverty, ” she says.
THE PART-TIME ISLANDERS
Jamie, six, lost his father to brain cancer when he was only one. His Edinburgh-based mother, Patsy Sneddon, is a professional clarsach player who sometimes holidays on Lismore. She teaches part-time at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music in Glasgow and plays at concerts and weddings. She receives a widow’s pension and working tax credit.
Sneddon often works evenings and at weekends, and has found it hard to access childcare. She relies on a friend who is not a registered childminder, so can’t to claim for childcare costs. She would prefer the childcare tax credit to be paid to her automatically.
The Scottish Sunday Herald
February 27th 2005