School’s out for the summer. Joy for the kids; despair for many parents. For those who don’t have grandparent childminders nearby, it’s hustle time.

For many working parents, as in this house, managing childcare over the holidays involves a messy patchwork of days off work, childcare swaps with other parents, TV days and holiday camp activities.

At least holidays are finite. An even bigger headache is after-school childcare, a rarer commodity than new ferries round these parts.

A friend of mine with two young primary aged children recently went back to work full time and spent weeks emailing after-school clubs and childminders, all to no avail. “Sorry, fully booked,” was the repeat response.

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There don’t seem to be enough people providing childcare in Scotland. Last November, the Scottish Childminding Association revealed that more than a third of childminders had quit in the previous six years, with nearly 2000 childminding businesses forced to close. The SCMA blames an increase in bureaucratic workload for the losses and says more will leave, which is unsustainable.

And yet you can expect all the parties to trumpet their expansive childcare policies in the run-up to the next general election, as if all that’s required is a political decree and legions of Mary Poppinses will start descending from the sky.

The goal is right but the hope of delivering it without magic looks pretty slim.

Expanding affordable, flexible childcare provision is hugely important. The lack of it is the single biggest obstacle to mothers and single parents returning to work after parental leave, a major contributor to child poverty, the gender pay gap and the shortage of senior women in top jobs. Parents on lower incomes are particularly disadvantaged by it. Affordable, accessible childcare would boost the economy and tax take.

But right now, the UK has one of the most expensive childcare regimes in the world. A survey of costs by the OECD last year found that a couple in the UK might typically spend nearly a quarter of their wages on nursery costs.

There is however a fairytale land over the northern ocean where they do things very differently. The Swedish set-up makes you want to cry with envy. On top of 480 days’ parental leave, couples typically spend only four per cent of their wages on childcare costs, the fee being legally determined and calculated as a percentage of an individual household’s income. People’s ability to go back to work after having kids is therefore not determined by their wealth.

Afterschool and holiday care is widely available in Sweden and similarly affordable.

And another thing which makes British parents oooh and ahhh: Swedish state nurseries have long opening hours (there are even some night nurseries for shift workers). Council-run nurseries in Scotland are often open only during school hours.

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What’s the consequence of all this? That Sweden has the highest level of labour force participation among 15-64-year-olds in the OECD. According to the World Bank, 81 per cent of women that age are working in Sweden, compared to 74 per cent in the UK. So the benefits are clear.

In fairness, politicians get that. The problem is not the what, but the how.

Since 2021, three- and four-year-olds and some two-year-olds in Scotland have been entitled to 1140 hours of funded childcare annually, in a mammoth effort to improve things for working parents. It’s a great policy but there are difficulties with it.

Firstly it leaves a gap in the first two years of a child’s life, exactly the time parents usually need childcare to be able to return to work. Secondly, the funding for the scheme doesn’t match nurseries’ costs in the private and voluntary sector. The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) Scotland noted last summer that private and independent nurseries (which are typically open longer hours and therefore the only option for many parents) make up a third of providers of the 1140 hours, but only receive a fifth of council funding for it.

“The impact of this is that private and voluntary nurseries cannot compete with the salaries available to staff in council-run nurseries which is putting the sector under real pressure,” said the NDNA.

And then there’s staffing. A review by the Scottish Private Nurseries Association last year pointed to “an ongoing strain in staffing numbers across the whole nursery sector” and noted that the projected increase in childcare staff from 9,500 in 2016/17 to 18,500 five years later, predicted by the Scottish Government, had not materialised, with only a small increase in training numbers.

No kidding. This was always the credibility-stretching bit, since staff turnover at many nurseries is high. The one my daughter attended was a merry-go-round of staff arrivals and departures, with a number of workers leaving the profession altogether.

Nurseries have to be able to compete on wages.

The Scottish Government knows it’s important to raise the status and pay of the profession but how to do that on Scottish rather than Swedish levels of taxation is a conundrum.

Humza Yousaf has promised 22 hours a week of free childcare for one- and two-year-olds in his first budget. A worthwhile ambition, but can it possibly be delivered? The Scottish Childminding Association warns that continued departures from the profession threaten Scottish Government commitments on childcare for one-year-olds and school-aged children.

At Westminster, there are doubts that the Tories’ promise of 30 hours’ funded childcare a week is workable. Labour wanted to go further, providing wraparound funded childcare from the end of parental leave until the end of primary school, but the party has pulled back from over-promising on that, given its self-imposed fiscal discipline and existing problems with childcare provision.

That’s fair enough. Wraparound childcare cover that actually matches parents’ needs should indeed be the ultimate aim, but it just frustrates parents when politicians promise what they can’t deliver. The staffing and funding issues can’t just be ignored. We need credible workforce planning. Status and pay in all early years learning settings will have to be competitive if we’re going to get this right.

So school’s out but there’s plenty homework to be done.