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Families struggle in barren lands

The countryside seems the ideal place to bring up children not so says a new European Union child-care study. Reva Klein reports.

Julie Fullerton is a former actress who is now an unemployed single parent of three children under 11. She lives on a council estate on the Nigg Peninsula, Ross and Cromarty. There are two registered childminders in the area and both are full. The closest state nursery is in Tain, 10 miles away. She says her situation is "hopeless: there is no child care, no after-school care, no work. I have two diplomas and if I stay here, my life is wrecked. I love it, but there is no point. Nobody's going to give me work for two-and-a-half hours, three mornings a week, which is how long the local playgroup runs. I haven't written myself off but I feel that society has."

Discussions about child care - like discussions about most services - focus almost exclusively on urban populations. Bronwen Cohen's recent report for the European Commission Network on Child Care aims to put the plight of rural families on the agenda.

Her report highlights how, with few exceptions, Europe's rural families are stuck in a desperate trap of fewer jobs for skilled workers, depopulation and changing family structures. And it looks at how these factors are exacerbated by the lack of child care in rural compared to urban areas.

For those who have even the haziest notion of the European league tables for child care, there are few surprises in the report when it comes to the availability and nature of rural provision. Generally, it reflects the urban picture. Denmark is top of the form, with five times the number of child-care facilities for its rural population as England does for its best-placed urban areas. But compared to people living in many Danish towns and cities, rural Danes, who make up 15 to 20 per cent of the population, have fewer child-care options. Even in a well-provided-for country such as Denmark, national child-care policies are geared towards families living in cities and towns. They do not take account of the relative poverty of rural families who cannot pay for private child care or the poor transport services in the countryside.

Britain is, predictably, bottom of the heap in terms of rural as well as urban child care, down there with Ireland, Greece and Portugal. "The simple reason for this is the lack of a coherent national child-care policy," says Bronwen Cohen.

Despite the Government's much-hyped promise to increase nursery-school places, the deterioration of publicly-funded day care grinds on, leaving families with children under four with nothing. Those who can pay for nannies and childminders or private nurseries, or who are lucky enough to have access to employer-subsidised nurseries, are on one side of the divide. On the other are those families on low incomes who aren't on the social services "at risk" registers and thereby don't qualify for a council nursery place. For them, the high costs of private child care make it uneconomic to go to work.

In this country, as elsewhere in the EU, major economic upheavals, demographic and social changes have hit rural communities hard. As the report points out, despite increased agricultural output over the past 30 years there has been a steep decline in farming-related employment: from 21 per cent of the economically active population in 1980 to 7 per cent in 1992. As a result, more farming families have had to find work outside the home. Female employment rates are rising dramatically in some areas and countries, including the UK, France and Germany. But rural women are over-represented in low or unskilled areas. A 1994 report, Women in the Rural Economy, shows that 77 per cent of women in rural areas have low-paid jobs as opposed to 65 per cent of all women.

This complex picture of changing economic and social circumstances points to new needs. Twenty or 30 years ago child care was not an issue for farming families because more activities were home-based and relatives tended to live near by which meant accessibility to carers such as grandparents. Now rural households are finding they need care for their young children but none exists. A report for the English Rural Development Commission by Moira Stone concludes: "For many, finding suitable child care in rural England is very difficult and there is rarely the luxury of choice."

Where there have been developments, in scattered regions in this country but more substantially in Denmark and France, they have been helped by communities combining their initiatives. But while European money exists, take-up of funding has been low because of inadequate publicity.

Bronwen Cohen's report calls for the EU to establish a rural programme which would run up to 250 projects. These would be designed to show how money direct from the Commission could help develop flexible, multi-functional models of child care and to look at ways of adapting existing services.

On a national level, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard has mentioned rural areas in connection with the expansion for nursery education. But that, as even city folk know, is not the only requirement of working parents. High quality, affordable child care for babies and toddlers, nursery education and after-school care for older children are what working parents need, wherever they live. For families in the country, such things may be as remote as an underground station.

As Margaret Fletcher, rural child care adviser for the National Council for Voluntary Child Care Organisations, puts it: "People have this image of country children being free to play out in the fields. But the fields are full of sheep and cows. People who move from the cities to the countryside are shocked at how the things they have taken for granted - childminders, nurseries, creches - just don't exist."

Child care services for rural families by Bronwen Cohen is available from Children in Scotland, Princes House, 5 Shandwick Place, Edinburgh EH2 4RG.

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