Memorandum prepared by Socialist Social Workers Association and adopted by S. M. A. 1939 or 1940
Planning for the care of young children is a project which is at any time of great importance to the nation, but in the present circumstances it assumes a special urgency, as we must be concerned not only with the care and safety of the children, but also with the liberation of as many as possible of the young mothers for work of national importance. For while we agree with the Minister of Labour that women with young children should be the last to be called up, we are sure that, if their children can be properly provided for, many young mothers will volunteer for work, and these women will be particularly useful in industry, having only recently left it, and being conversant with modern industrial technique.
The Government takes the responsibility for planning industrial production and for recruitment of women workers, but it cannot do this effectively unless the provision for the care of the children is adequate and efficient. We are of the opinion that the present arrangements for the “Under Fives” is in many important respects unsatisfactory, and as professional workers in the field of social welfare and public health we would like to put forward our criticisms and proposals for the improvement of these provisions.
Criticisms of present arrangements.
The principal defects of the present system are:-
(1) That the Government does not assume responsibility for the establishment of nurseries, but leaves the initiative to Local Authorities and voluntary organisations, and
(2) That the present evacuation scheme is not designed to assist in the mobilisation of women, providing adequate facilities only for children accompanied by their mothers, and allowing the evacuation of unaccompanied children in “special cases” only.
The arrangements for evacuation of unaccompanied children (under five) are in the hands of the W.V.S. The accommodation is limited to that which voluntary effort and private charity can provide. The demand greatly exceeds the number who are accepted, as the case records of many social workers show. The official figures, showing that about one-third of the applications are refused is really an under-estimate of the position, as they take no account of the many cases where a mother applies to a local social agency only to be advised that it is a waste of time to send her name forward to the selection panel.
As stated in the W.V.S. circular on evacuation, the scheme caters only for children who “for very strong reasons” cannot be taken out of the danger areas by their mothers or other responsible adults. The selection panel decides whether the applicant’s reason is strong enough. It is clear that a scheme of this kind is not designed to assist women who wish to evacuate their children in order to go to work. And apart from consideration of the needs of industry, we feel strongly that the decision whether she can and should go away with her baby is a private matter, and should be made by the mother herself without interference from officials or social workers.
It has been urged that it is better for mothers to accompany their children, and this is perhaps one reason why more opportunities for unaccompanied evacuation have not been provided. We agree that in normal tines mothers should not be separated from their children if this can be avoided, but in the present emergency, when every available woman is needed in industry, we feel that young mothers should not be urged to go away, but should be given every opportunity to evacuate their children if they wish to,
A further criticism of the present scheme is that the responsibility for its planning and administration has not been given to the persons best qualified for this work, i.e. trained social workers and nursery workers.
Many social workers feel strongly that in the interests of the children as many of them as possible should be evacuated from the danger areas, and are concerned at reports that there are nearly half a million children under five in evacuation areas. We consider that day nurseries are a very much less satisfactory solution of the problem of the under fives, and therefore attach great importance to the extension and improvement of the evacuation schemes, both as a safety measure, and as an aid to mobilisation of women.
It has been suggested that the solution lies in evacuation of mothers with their children to reception areas where they can find work. Our experience indicates that this is not practicable as a complete solution, though a certain number of women may find useful work in reception areas. In practice the place to which women and children are evacuated is determined by (1) safety, and (2) available accommodation, and not by facilities for work. It is found that in areas where there is a great demand for workers, there is hardly enough accommodation for women without their children. This is borne out by suggestions that some areas may be “closed” to all but workers. Also such areas can never be considered even comparatively safe.
Nurseries in Industrial Areas.
Even with an extension of the evacuation scheme, many women will decide against evacuation, and will wish to have their children near them. If these women are to be mobilised for regular work provision for their children must be made in the form of day or residential nurseries near to their home or place of work. Even part-time workers will need this provision.
The establishment of nurseries lags behind the demands of industry. The initiative lies with the local authority which is permitted, but not compelled, to provide nurseries. It is often difficult to convince local authorities of the need for nurseries without presenting long lists of names of women who are waiting for them. In practice it is difficult to obtain them, because women hesitate to demand a service of which they have never had practical experience. In areas where nurseries have actually been established, they are quickly filled.
Local Authorities who decide to open nurseries find that the work is considerably delayed by the cumbersome method of obtaining Ministry Sanction by submitting detailed estimates, each item of which has to be separately approved before work can be started.
It has been suggested by Government spokesmen that mothers who wish to work should make private arrangements for the minding of their children. Arrangements of this kind are not only unsatisfactory, but uneconomic in woman-power, for the number of children a woman can mind in her home is very much less than that which a worker in an organised nursery can account for. Besides this, these arrangements are very liable to breakdown, causing loss of working time.
- The first essential is a national plan, for which the Government should be responsible, for the provision of nurseries in both reception and evacuation areas. This should aim at ensuring that every mother capable of working should have the free choice of (1) evacuating her young children unaccompanied, (2) of having them cared for in a nursery near her home, or b) of going away with her children. This would free many women for work near their homes, while still allowing them to go away to reception areas with the children if they wish.
- In making this plan the neutral areas should be carefully revised.
- The Local Authorities should be compelled to carry out the plan as it applies to their areas.
- Block grants should be given to local authorities to expedite their work.
- The scheme should be worked out and administered by trained social workers. The machinery for this work already exists in embryo in the Maternity and Child Welfare Department of the Ministry of Health, with its corresponding departments of the Local Authorities. The workers in the department, with the assistance of the local health visitors, and of the Regional Welfare Officers and County Welfare Adviser, and the factory welfare workers, are in an excellent position to collect the necessary statistics for the plan, and to operate it locally.
- Residential nurseries are essential in all areas where shifts are generally worked, to ensure that the mother gets sufficient rest at home, and also to avoid transporting the children at all hours and in all weathers. They are desirable also wherever long hours are the general rule.
- Hours of day nurseries should be adjusted to meet local working conditions.
- Special arrangements should be made for the supply of food to day nurseries as well as residential, so that children may have their principal meals there.
- Staffing, though difficult, is not an insuperable problem.
- It is necessary to have all nurseries supervised by trained workers, but a great deal of the work can be done satisfactorily by trainees. This work is just as essential as any other war work, as it frees so many more workers than it occupies, and we consider that recruiting for this work should be included in the general scheme for recruitment of women for war work. A well-organised propaganda and publicity drive should produce a large number of suitable workers and trainees, who otherwise would go into other fields and be less useful.
We realise that the planning, administering and staffing of a system, of nurseries on the scale that we suggest is a large undertaking and will entail considerable expense and occupy a great number of workers. But in view of the contribution it will make to the war effort by releasing much greater numbers of women for industry and ensuring that their work will be regular, the undertaking will in the long run prove an economy, besides contributing to the welfare and safety of the children. Social workers all over the country will make every effort to ensure that the scheme is efficiently operated.