For working families in the UK, childcare is probably the biggest headache. Choosing the right setting for your child/children, how to make it work with drop offs and pick ups, full-time or part-time, making the sums add up. Women often seem to feel that it all falls on their shoulders; making the decisions, working out whether their salary will cover the childcare costs for 1, 2 or 3 kids. In this rather epic review, I take childcare by the horns; examining the UK childcare situation now and the changes that are coming up.
Childcare: a joint responsibility
Of course, the key thing to remember here is that childcare, whether providing it, organising it or paying for it, is not the sole responsibility of the mother. If the kids have two parents, then two people are responsible for their care and wellbeing. Dads need to take parental leave or annual leave when needed, meet potential carers, participate in dropping off and picking up, and factor their salary into the equation. Fiona Millar makes this key point in The Secret World of the Working Mother (2009):
Mother's wage - childcare costs = not much/nothing
Mother's wage + father's wage (they are his kids too right?) - childcare costs = some
Taking the view that it's not worth going back to work because "it doesn't pay" is fine if, actually, you don't really want to go back to work. But don't sacrifice a job you love because you are holding up your salary against the entire childcare bill, instead of half of it. And there are other reasons you might want to continue working aside from household finances - to maintain your skill-set, to stay connected, to maintain your independence, because you need something else to think about than weaning or potty training 24/7. Of course, if both salaries really don't cover childcare, lots of dads are now choosing to take a career break to care for the kids.
By checking your rights and the legislation regulating childcare providers, you may be able to find a solution that works emotionally, practically and financially for you and your partner and, of course, that is in the best interests of your kids.
What's happening with maternity leave, paternity leave and parental leave?
Policy changes mean that you and your partner can decide whether to go the traditional route with maternity and paternity leave or consider sharing leave. You may also wish to take unpaid leave later on.
- Mums can take a minimum of 2 weeks and a maximum of 52 weeks Maternity Leave, if you have worked for their employer for a minimum of 1 year. Your level of pay will depend on how long you have worked there, how much you earn and your contract. Statutory maternity pay is paid for 39 weeks, if you have worked for your employer continuously for 26 weeks up to the 15th week before your due date (NI Direct). Confused!?
- Dads can take 1-2 weeks Paternity Leave within the first 2 months after the child's birth date, then if their partner returns to work early, may be eligible for up to 26 weeks Additional Paternity Leave.
- Currently parents can also access Parental Leave. Each parent can take up to 18 weeks unpaid leave from work to care for their children at any time up to the child's 5th birthday for a maximum of 4 weeks per year. Although this is unpaid, it could be really useful to help during a nursery/school holiday or to settle a child into a new school.
- From 2015, mums will still take 2 weeks leave minimum but parents will be able to share the remaining 50 weeks as Flexible Parental Leave. This is closer to Norwegian policy; see this guest post to find out more about how sharing leave feels in practice.
And don't forget, when your leave comes to an end, whether it's after 2 weeks or a year, it is emotional leaving your baby for the first time to go to work. My daughter started at a childminder at 7 months so I could start a nursing job. For the first couple of weeks, I felt heart-broken and bereft. We both got used to it and she loved her childminder for a wonderful 18 months but it was definitely hard to adjust. Cut yourself some slack, it will get easier.
The world of work is changing
When you do go back to work, you might not be tied to the humdrum 9-5 Monday-Friday. All UK employees now have the right to request "flexible working"; a right parents of children under 17 have had for some time. Sadly, as we all know, asking doesn't mean getting. You could ask to compress your hours (5 days into 4 days for example) or to start earlier and finish earlier. You will need to have strong negotiation skills (ask your boss after lunch, apparently they will feel more relaxed and are more likely to say yes!) or be prepared to walk away from a job with less than sympathetic employers. Women Like Us offers careers advice specifically for women with children.
More part-time roles and opportunities for home-working are helping parents who want to spend more time with their kids, be it taking them to a parent and toddler morning once a week or being there to collect them at the school gates. Working a 4 day week may well be better for your health and quality of life and have minimal impacts on your finances if you take into account rail fares, tax, car insurance and child benefit (Lisa Bachelor, Guardian). Childcare settings are willing to take children on a part time basis, though their fees might not always reflect exactly how long your child is there.
Research by The Family & Childcare Trust shows that the 24/7 culture means more parents are working "atypical hours" outside the usual 8am-6pm provided by registered childcare providers*. 16% of parents work shifts; 10% work over 40 hours a week and 40% of parents work hours which vary week to week, making organising childcare very difficult. Parents with long commutes need early drop offs and late pick ups. Shift workers may need overnight care. Some parents may be able to "tag team" or hire a babysitter, nanny or au pair to drop off or pick up. But many families end up relying on informal childcare - grandparents, older siblings, friends - who may not be able to provide the commitment needed for the parents to maintain their job.
I was only able to work long shifts (days, nights and weekends) as a nurse because my partner's job was 9-5 - he took a hands-on role with childcare and did drop offs and pick ups from our childminder. My parents could step in if needed. Now my partner works long hours and my parents live two hours away, hospital shifts just aren't feasible for us anymore, especially if I can't get shifts on fixed days.
As a society, we lose skilled employees from the workforce both because employers may expect an unreasonable level of flexibility from workers with families (such as long hours or hours that change week to week) and because councils don't yet provide high quality, flexible childcare to meet demand. Hopefully more childcare providers will start to offer flexible hours, but until then it's always worth asking! Our childminder didn't mind taking our daughter half an hour early and keeping her half an hour late as it was only 2 days a week.
Looking at childcare options
In the UK, we have a very mixed childcare scene with huge variety in provision, costs and quality. Registered childcare includes childminders, nurseries, pre-schools and creches (over 2 hours/day). These settings are inspected by Ofsted and regulated in terms of child:staff ratios, health & safety, indoor and outdoor space, activities and care. Non-registered childcare may be friends, nannies or babysitters.
As a family we have used a childminder, a mother's help, a nursery and a playschool. Clearly, different settings will suit different children depending on their age and personality and will work for different families depending on whether you're looking for full-time, part-time or term-time childcare and what you need it for. If you are working, you might want siblings at the same setting for convenience. If you're on leave you might just need some stimulation for your older child, either elsewhere or at your own home, so you and the baby can catch up on some shut-eye on the sofa!
Key things to consider:
- Child:staff ratios: There should be AT LEAST 1 staff member: 3 babies under 2 years old, and 1 staff member: 4 toddlers aged 2 years old. Staff ratios for children aged three and over vary - check OFSTED.
- Get a feel for the people and the place: Do the staff seem welcoming and kind? Is there plenty of outdoor space and equipment? Are you able to meet everyone who works there or lives there in the case of a childminder? Do the children there seem happy and cared for? Or are there kids plonked in front of the telly, babies left in high chairs? Staff more interested in paperwork than children? Glaring health and safety issues!?
- Think about bonding. Young children need to see familiar faces who will respond to their needs so they feel secure and happy. This is simpler with a childminder or nanny but nurseries and preschools with several members of staff should allocate a keyworker to your child whose job it is to really get to know him or her so they can help them enjoy activities but also reassure them when they are upset or hurt. See Sue Gerhardt's Why Love Matters (2004) for more on bonding and child development.
- Read Ofsted reports and get references from other parents but also trust your instincts. I took my daughter out of an "outstanding" day nursery because I wasn't convinced they were providing the level of quality care day to day that they advertised. I was really stressed about it at the time but, with hindsight, it wasn't the right setting for her.
- Listen to your child. It will take a while to settle in, but you're hoping for a baby to hold out their arms for their childminder or for a toddler to excitedly run in to playgroup without a backward glance, even though it may put your nose out of joint! If your child really finds it hard to settle in, you need to think about whether they need more time or whether actually the setting isn't right for them. If they are saying "don't want it, don't want it" all the way there for weeks on end, it could be worth investigating further.
Childcare is really, really expensive. No news there then. Many of us are relying on grandparents to help out; it was reported this month that nearly 2 million grandparents are giving up work or cutting their hours to care for their grandchildren (James Meikle, Guardian). It's important to be fair to grandparents - some are desperate to look after their grandchildren but others may find it too much. After all, even well and able parents find a whole day with their kids knackering!
Good news is that all 3 and 4 year olds are currently entitled to 15 hours/week free childcare for 38 weeks a year. 20% of 2 year olds are also eligible, depending on family income, and this will double to 40% in September 2014 (GOV UK). There are also lots of ways to get financial help with paying for childcare. We used childcare vouchers from both our employers to pay our childminder (remember both parents are responsible for childcare costs so both parents are eligible for help). Of course, actually accessing financial help tends to be really confusing. With this in mind, I recommend you take a look at the Family & Childcare Trust fact sheet Childcare Costs for detailed information.
And really think about your options. Yes full-time day nurseries are really expensive. But if you've got a spare room, an au pair might be cheaper. Or think about a nanny share with another family. These options definitely involve compromises but could give you the flexibility you need at a price you can afford.
What about holidays?
In pre-school settings, dealing with holidays can be a bit easier. Many nurseries are open all year round, but bear in mind preschools are usually term-time only and childminders and nannies are entitled to annual leave too! School holidays, of course, are the real nightmare for working parents. Now, I'm a bit old-school, I feel really nostalgic about the wonderful long holidays we used to enjoy as kids - it felt like a taste of real freedom, a proper break to rest and re-charge. But then, my parents were teachers so it was simple.
For a lot of families, it's a real worry. Trying to find back-to-back summer camps to put the kids into. Or each parent using up their annual leave to cover half the summer holiday, putting pay to any proper family holiday together. According to the Holiday Childcare Survey 2014, 25% of parents had been forced to cut their hours, 17% said they had taken days off sick and 12% of parents had given up a job. The average cost of holiday childcare in Britain is £114.50 per week and only 27% of English local authorities had enough holiday childcare for working parents.
Those are grim stats. In this situation, informal arrangements sharing childcare with friends or relatives might help a bit but needs a lot of organising and goodwill. According to the Department of Education quoted in The Independent last week, "We have introduced tax free childcare for almost two million families so working parents with children under 12 can save up to £2,000 per child per year from 2015" - so better hope you're eligible for tax breaks in 2015 then!
Accessing a community of families in the same boat
Being a working parent, even with great childcare, is tough. When you're moving between the world of work and the world of parenthood, you can end up feeling isolated from both. Can't make after-work drinks on Friday night, got to get home to the kids. Can't make your child's sports day, you've got a meeting. Especially if you are working full-time, you might feel that it's hard to meet other parents and that your child misses out on the toddler groups that only seem to run on weekday mornings or the after school ballet classes and swimming lessons.
If this is you, it really helps to find families in the same situation. Good childminders and nurseries can help link you in to a community of families just by introducing you at pick up time or running events in the evenings. If you can find the energy between doing last week's laundry and cooking next week's dinners, organise stuff on the weekends with other families - group picnics, swimming trips, movie outings. All the better if there is fun for the grown ups too! That is what happy childhood memories are made of.
The Family and Childcare Trust are very clear that the government needs to put in place a national strategy for childcare so that families across the country can access affordable, flexible, quality childcare, rather than having to use multiple childcare providers to cover their working hours. How this should be achieved is still up for debate. I don't necessarily agree with all their recommendations:
- More early years provision in schools, with care from age 2 years. While this does make a lot of practical sense, my concern is whether a school setting is the right place for toddlers; young children still in need of cuddles, naps and nappy changes. What a baby needs is obviously very different from what a confident preschooler needs.
- Graduate-led early years provision. You can learn about child development and education but I have met so many wonderful people working in early years settings who have endless patience, kindness, experience and, above all, devotion to the needs of young children, that I could not bear to see these qualities overlooked in favour of academic qualifications.
So for the time being, it's probably best to really think through what is important for your family in terms of work/life balance and childcare. Whatever you choose, it just has to work for now. Things change, priorities change. If everyone is coping ok, great. If a member of the family, young or old, is exhausted, miserable or struggling, think again. There are a myriad of options out there, so go with your instinct. In my experience, if you know the kids are having a good time, it makes life a damn sight easier for you. Good luck!
*Research published by the Family & Childcare Trust, Open all hours: flexible childcare in the 24/7 era by Rosanna Singler (2011)
Thanks for reading all the way to the end! What are your experiences of childcare? What would you really like to see change in the next few years?