Untapped talent: Single parents and in-work progression – the national picture

Published on 11 February 2020


Drawing on a review of the existing evidence as well as new quantitative  and qualitative research, this report summarises what is known about in-work progression for single parents across England and Wales. The report outlines why in-work progression is a pertinent issue for single parents and explores their attitudes, aspirations, experiences and outcomes in relation to progression. Further, it examines what can be done in terms of workplace and policy interventions to improve single parents’ outcomes in this area.

Key findings

In-work progression is a key way for single parents to escape a cycle of low pay and financial insecurity. However, this report highlights five interconnected barriers that are preventing single parents from progressing in their jobs:

  • Lack of flexibility – A lack of flexibility forces many single parents to work fixed hours in order to balance work and childcare commitments. This lack of flexibility means single parents are not only unable to work additional hours, but they are also blocked from training and the socialising aspect of some jobs – key factors associated with limiting opportunities for progression.
  • Working part-time – Single parents are more likely to be working part-time in order to balance their caring responsibilities.  Often assumed to be incompatible with higher paid roles, working part-time means that single parents are frequently forced to work below their skill level to achieve the flexibility they need.
  • Relationship between education and job roles – Single parents tend to have fewer educational qualifications than the working-age population as a whole. While lower levels of education will typically limit single parents’ rates of progression, many single parents are over-qualified for the work they are currently undertaking.
  • Lack of affordable childcare – 41% of single parents struggle to afford childcare, compared with 14% of parents in couples. A lack of affordable childcare prevents many single parents from seeking better paid roles and blocks in-work progression.
  • Time out of the labour market – Being consistently in work helps people to escape low pay, single parents are more likely to have ‘work gaps’.

Key recommendations

To remove or reduce the barriers to in-work progression facing single parents a range of solutions are needed requiring action and collaboration from a number of government departments and employers, some of Gingerbread’s key recommendations include:

Increase the availability of part-time and flexible work:

  • The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) should introduce a duty on employers to publish flexible working options in job adverts and give workers the right to take up the advertised flexibility from day one
  • Employers should open up more senior level roles with part-time and flexible hours. By offering access to progression within part-time and flexible roles, employers will be able to access an untapped pool of single parents who have previously been unable to move out of low-paid work.

Cheaper and more accessible childcare

  • The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) must loan the upfront costs of childcare for single parents (not through the Flexible support fund) including deposits and the first month advance payment, so that single parents do not need to cover this substantial upfront cost.
  • The DWP should review the operation of childcare payments under universal credit around evidence of payment and the
    monthly payments being made in arrears
  • The DfE should reconsider the current operation of the 30 hour childcare offer to make it more compatible with the realities of working life including offering this provision throughout the year.
  • The DfE should urgently review the childcare cap which limits the total amount that parents can receive and was set back in April 2003. This level has not kept up with rising childcare costs and prevents the promised 85% support for childcare under Universal Credit.

Offering timely careers support

  • The DWP should target career support and advice to single parents at key stages of their children’s lives, in particular when
    their youngest child begins primary or secondary school.
  • Employers should use their appraisal system to encourage single parents within their workforce to consider progression
    and offer coaching to build the confidence of single parents to progress.
  • The Government Equalities Office (GEO), BEIS and employers should set up networks for single parents to access information
    and support in different work sectors and at different levels of roles. In addition a mentoring programme, which includes single
    parents as a priority group, should be piloted and evaluated by the GEO along similar lines to their returners programme.