Childcare in Multicultural Britain -Dr Mabel Lie

can stock asian kid

By Dr Alex Tan 

I met Dr Lie during my work at Newcastle University. Her paper on the parenting of Chinese and Bangladeshi households was of particular interest as it is a rare example of academic work with Chinese families in the North East. Recently Dr Lie kindly discussed her book, which expands on the paper I had read. The following article explains some of the themes in this original contribution.

Towards Equal Voices: Childcare in Multicultural Britain nearly ten years on

By Dr Mabel Lie

The PhD and the book

Childcare in these austere times has been in the news with government moving to change practices among childcare providers, seeking to allow more children to be cared for per child-minder or nursery staff, and yet at the same time requiring more stringent inspections by OFSTED. These policy changes have been proposed with the expressed aim of getting women back into the workplace. It strikes me that there is little understanding about the variety of childcare practices among the increasingly diverse population of the UK.

In 2000, I enrolled as a PhD student in Newcastle University on an ESRC CASE studentship collaborating with the Early Years and Child Development Partnership (EYDCP) in Newcastle, to investigate the childcare needs of socially excluded groups. As a mature student from Singapore, a mother with two children, with experience of working with Bangladeshi families on a community project in the West End of Newcastle upon Tyne, I seemed the best candidate for researching this community as well as the Chinese community in the city. I made comparisons between the two groups and presented reports and recommendations to the partnership about childcare service provision and how they could be made more socially inclusive. I completed the thesis at the end of 2004. Apart from articles in academic journals and conference presentations, I made it my aim to publish my thesis as a book to mark my 50th birthday in 2010. The title of the book is: ‘Towards Equal Voices: childcare and children in Chinese and Bangladeshi households in Newcastle upon Tyne’.

The main finding from my research is that the concept of childcare varies from community to community, person to person, and that in unpacking their meanings, one should pay attention to the migration histories, family and religious ideologies, neighbourhoods and social networks they are embedded in, with the accompanying experiences of discrimination and exclusion. As part of my research I conducted interviews with parents, grandparents and children, and drew from them what it meant for children to be looked after by someone other than their parents; when that happened, why and how. Altogether, I had the privilege of gaining access and speaking to members of eight Chinese and seven Bangladeshi households.

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Collecting the data

Fieldwork is the best part of a social researcher’s work-life. Gaining the trust of the research participants is no mean feat especially if they are from so-called ‘hard-to-reach’ groups and I am totally indebted to the gatekeepers of these communities who were community and health workers as well as interpreters. Using my networks in these communities, I was able to visit households that ranged from families involved in the catering trades, such as restaurants and take-aways, as well those who had professional backgrounds. It was fascinating seeing the different ways in which these households organised themselves even though both community groups are equally well known for their involvement in the catering industry. Religious and cultural beliefs and values had a large role to play in this, and in turn, influenced the way children were brought up in these communities, and therefore their childcare needs varied accordingly.

“Now as my mum goes to work, then my sister-in-law had to go to work about five o’clock for the take-away, yeah, and then the little one needs to drink milk at at night-time as well, like they have to wake up quite a few times  … So um so, I realise that even though that week you know is stress all around because it’s like my sister-in-law have to look after in the morning, then go to work and she doesn’t finish work until one o’clock in the morning” – Mrs Pang describing what happens when she is away on a business trip. 

Participants’ accounts, family values and policy 

Often what sociology is about is making plain the obvious in an organised and informed way, and providing an analytic lens to social phenomena that is often taken for granted. Often we uncover meanings that are overlooked by policy makers, which can turn things around if seen in this light of social empathy. Stories are told of difficult histories and experiences adjusting in this country; fathers returning from work in the early hours of the morning and then minding the baby later in the morning when mum works; parents speak of children who become ill; of babies being cared for in the takeaway while both mum and dad worked unsocial hours; of older children looking after younger siblings; and grandparents who struggle to help look after their grandchildren. The children were also asked to put together a diary of what they do during the week to give us an idea of when childcare is actually needed. There were families with strong and dense family networks; others that were more isolated whose needs were different again.

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All their voices are heard in this study to be saying that formal childcare shouldn’t just be about minding children when parents work, it should be about trust, family values and education. Chinese parents placed great value in discipline and the importance of the family (‘familism’) while Bangladeshi parents valued religious education and upbringing. Grandparents in both communities play a huge and often unrecognised role in looking after their grandchildren while parents worked.

“We Chinese value Chinese culture, respect parents, I don’t feel that here they will teach this, it seems as though there is nothing like this (here)” – Mr Wong

Formal childcare works when it is affordable, flexible, caring and sensitive to parents’ lives and livelihoods and what they value for their children. It works best when offered as a universal and socially inclusive social provision that can serve not only to meet the needs of working families, but in building a socially inclusive society. Unfortunately, the way it is going, society is being increasingly polarised because of the austerity measures put in place by the government. Childcare is one policy area where equal opportunities can be given to parents as they manage their work-life balance. At the moment with the closure of Sure Start centres and financial pressures faced by voluntary sector childcare provision, formal childcare is only available to those who can afford it.

The fieldwork was on-going when the devastating effects of 9/11 in New York took place – a result of polarised and radicalised sectors of the globalised world we live in. This is reflected in a part of the diary that one of the children filled in. My research hopefully has shown that childcare as part of the social reproduction of future generations has the potential to play a crucial role towards breaking down social divisions and contributing to social stability.

The book ‘Towards Equal Voices’, (Mabel Lie, 2010) is available now at Amazon

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