Childcare: the options
You're pregnant. The birth is looming and you think you've got everything planned. Birth plan - check. Overnight bag packed - check. Stacks of teeny weeny nappies in the bedroom - check. How organised are you! Or are you? Have you got the whole childcare thing sorted out yet? Even though maternity now extends to a year with nine months of that covered by statutory maternity pay, that doesn't give you a lot of time. Many nurseries, for example, have incredibly long waiting lists and require you to register before the birth of your child.
Human resources experts say many women leave it till the last minute to arrange childcare and this can cause untold problems and stress and make your return to work that much harder. The first thing to consider before you look at childcare is what you yourself would feel comfortable with and what is the best childcare to suit you, your child and the way you plan to work. For example, do your working hours vary? Is flexibility important? What can you afford? What age is your child? Are they open to new experiences and ready to interact with lots of other children or would they prefer a more homely environment?
The main types of childcare available are:
A good place to begin is with your local children’s information service. In addition to providing a list of local childcare options, it also gives advice on what to look for and questions to ask when you are investigating the best childcare for your child.
Registered day nurseries are regulated by Ofsted and you can look up their most recent report on the Ofsted website. Ofsted inspects for quality of care and safety. Many mothers feel guilty about leaving their child at nursery, but research shows that children who are given high quality childcare have better social, emotional and educational development than their peers. One big advantage of nurseries is that they offer full-time guaranteed care for at least 50 weeks of the year – if a staff member is sick there is back-up, unlike with a childminder.
Many nurseries now offer flexible options for parents, including a full or half day and some also offer a school day [9-3 or 3.30pm]. Check with the nursery on their opening times. Most open from 7am to 7pm, although hours may vary. Costs vary so it is worth looking around. Children over three qualify for a government subsidy.
Most staff are qualified, but it is worth asking what the ratio of carers to children is – there should be three children to a carer for under twos, four children per carer for over twos and eight children per carer for older children. Some nurseries offer after school care for older children so it is worth checking. Most nurseries offer a settling in period where you attend with your child, then leave the child for a short time until at last you leave them for a longer period.
Nursery schools/classes offer places for three and four year olds at local schools. They usually offer either a morning or afternoon session, but many are now providing a full school day – 9.30-3.30pm. This is free of charge. Some may offer out of school care and holiday schemes, but most do not.
Registered childminders are also regulated by Ofsted. The children’s information service has a list of those in your area. Registered childminders have to undergo basic training, including first aid, and most do other professional development training. They generally look after children in their own home and are allowed to care for six children under eight, but no more than three can be under five. This includes their own children. The childminders determine their own hours in consultation with you, but many are prepared to do more flexible hours than a nursery can offer, such as evenings and weekends. Childminders are often willing to pick up older children from school, but if they look after other children and have their own children your child will have to be at the same school. They are inspected by Ofsted to ensure they cater for the different developmental stages of the children in their care.
The average cost of a childminder is much cheaper than nursery fees. Many childminders also offer settling-in periods.
Nannies have the big advantage of being able to care for your child in their own home and to fit around your domestic/working life. Most have a recognised qualification in childcare. They do not have to be regulated by Ofsted, but they can apply to be registered under the voluntary part of the Ofsted Childcare Register [this includes a criminal records check]. Always use a reputable agency to hire a nanny and check references. Costs can vary quite widely so check with your provider. This depends on whether they live in, their experience and the hours they work. As their employer, you will also have to pay their tax and National Insurance contributions, plus holiday and sick pay and you will need to pay for them to go on your car insurance if you want them to use your car.
You can cut the costs by checking out if you qualify for tax credits – to do this you employ a registered or approved nanny. Another way of reducing costs by up to a half is by doing a nanny share, whereby you share your nanny with another family. There are different types of nanny share, from a five days a week share with children being looked after together, a part-time share with children being looked after together two or three days a week and a split week share to a main family share with one family employing a nanny full time and sharing her with another family for part of the week. Nanny shares can be difficult to manage logistically – you need to find a family which is compatible with you. You can find out about nanny shares through nanny networks and websites such as Best Bear.
Another option is au pairs. These are young women or men who come from overseas. As such, they are not usually trained to work with children and are not appropriate for very young children. They can work up to five hours a day and should be paid weekly, plus given their own room and meals. They must have two days off a week.
After school clubs and holiday playschemes are regulated by Ofsted and are offered by an increasing number of schools. Most before and after school clubs cover from 8am to 6pm. Many provide children with breakfast or an afternoon snack. Costs vary for after school care and breakfast clubs. Holiday playschemes [covering sport, art, drama, etc] usually operate along school hours. There are also private holiday playschemes available. They can opt to be part of the Ofsted Childcare Register. Places are often scarce, depending on the area you live in, so it is worth applying early.
Disabled children: all childcare providers have to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to provide for disabled children. The Early Support Programme provides information on the best childcare available for under fives with disabilities.
Helping to pay: childcare costs are often one of the biggest factors in deterring women from going back to work. However, there is help available through subsidies for three and four year olds in private nurseries and free part-time places in state school nurseries. There are also tax credits. These have recently been cut back so check with the Government website and tax credit calculator to see whether you are eligible and how much you can claim.
· Child tax credit
· Working families tax credit
· Childcare element of working families tax credit
· Disabled child’s premium.
Your employer may also operate a voucher scheme. These usually mean a slight reduction in your salary, but you do not have to pay tax or National Insurance contributions on a significant chunk of your childcare costs per week you spend on approved or registered childcare. However, vouchers may affect your entitlement to tax credits so check this out. With all childcare preparations, remember always to have an emergency back-up plan in case your child gets sick and cannot go to nursery or your child carer is ill or otherwise indisposed.