The First Minister announced Wednesday that all schools and nurseries in Scotland will close indefinitely from Friday 20th March.
This means that there could potentially be 12 weeks1 between Friday and the end of June – when schools break up for summer holidays – in which parents will have to find alternative childcare arrangements for their children.
How many people in employment have children?
For those with the ability to work from home in the coming weeks and months, this might not be such a problem (although productivity might take a hit!). However, there are many people who, due the nature of their work, do not have the option to work remotely.
For these people, barring the implementation of a “lockdown” – as in counties like Italy, Spain and most recently France – the closing of schools indefinitely means they will be faced with the challenge of juggling work and childcare simultaneously.
In Scotland, it is estimated that roughly 607,000 (23% of) people in employment have at least one dependent child under the age of 10 – the age group for which it is likely most difficult to make alternative childcare arrangements. Of course, there are families with dependent children above the age of 10 who will be also affected.
Will certain industries be more affected?
It is not possible to estimate how many parents will be able to work from home. We can guess, however, that it will be difficult to do so for, for example, a sizeable portion of those working in construction, manufacturing, transportation, retail and hospitality.
These sectors alone account for roughly 38% of employment in Scotland (or 1.068 million people), and it is estimated that 21% of those working within them have at least one dependent child under the age of 10 – almost 208,000 of those in employment. They have, of course, also already experienced major disruption, and are facing significantly reduced demand, job cuts and even the closure of businesses.
Perhaps the most crucial people in the months to come will be those working in health and social care. Nurses, doctors, pharmacists, technicians, administrative staff and all who work in this sector will be called upon to keep pace with the inevitable increase in demand. Close to 15% of employment in Scotland is in the Health and Social Work sector, and 24% have dependent children under the age of 10 at home, equating to 95,000 people.
It has been announced that some schools that remain open for the children of “key workers” in these industries, however.
Childcare within families
These numbers are at the individual level, and often childcare shared among family members. One of the most common resources parents call upon for childcare are grandparents. Given that the official government advice is for people aged over 70 – and particularly those with underlying health conditions – practice strict social distancing, this will not be an option for many. Although there will be some who can organise arrangements with former partners, single parents are likely to be even more constrained given that easily sharing childcare with a partner at home won’t be an option.
There is also a chance that school closures disproportionately affect the ability of women to work normally (over and above the already numerous disruptions): women report to spend more hours than men, on average, caring for children. They are also more likely to work part-time and have lower earnings, therefore for many households it may be the rational financial decision for them to step back from paid work to care for children.
As mentioned above, much of the health and social care sector will likely be covered by the government’s scheme to keep children of key workers in schools. However, given that roughly 78% of the Health and Social Work sector is female, there might still be significant complications for many.
The potential costs of school closures to families
If some families do need to rely on some form of paid childcare alternative (which may also be constrained) then school closures will undoubtedly affect households in or near poverty the most. Many employers will seek to offer flexibility for when staff work in order to help them work around childcare, but this may not always be an option.
Parents could therefore be faced with a trade-off between working and caring for their children at home. Employers cannot refuse time-off for caring for dependent children, but they do not have to continue to pay their employees for this time – another issue that the government will need to consider to try and avoid having people fall into extreme hardship.
There are also many additional costs, not least those associated with the fact children will need to eat meals at home. In Scotland in 2019, all children in primaries 1-3 are entitled to free school meals, and almost 261,000 children in primary 3 and above (38% of all on the school roll) are registered for them given their family income. The Communities Secretary did announce on Wednesday that there would be a £70 million Food Fund made available to households that have difficulties accessing food due to income, however the details and practicalities of the fund are still unknown.
Policy in extreme uncertainty
The decision to close schools and nurseries by the government comes, of course, in the midst of a global pandemic. In an already stressful time, however, when people are facing the prospect of reduced pay, job disruption or loss, or the closure of their business or workplace, schools being closed will further complicate day-to-day life.
Workers in the public administration, education and health and social work sectors already experience the highest incidences of workplace stress, depression or anxiety. It is also inevitable that the high levels of uncertainty at present will heighten stress among much of the population, not least those faced with the prospect of being unable to pay their bills in the coming months2.
In amongst the consequences for the economy as a whole, it is important that the wellbeing – both individually and economically – of those affected by any policy is at the forefront of any discussion. Wednesday’s statement by the Communities Secretary announcing the introduction of a £350 million fund to support welfare and wellbeing was an important step in this direction.
Continued consideration will be required, however, as the labour market inevitably changes over the next few weeks and months if new public health restrictions are introduced.
1 This is excluding the 2 weeks of Easter Holidays between 6th and 20th of April for which we assume parents would have made, or at least have been prepared to make, plans. Although they shorten the weeks, we don’t exclude the three bank holidays in May in saying there are “12 weeks”.