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As more and more parents are working irregular hours the demand for childcare that supports that work is rising.
One pioneering local authority initiative that has been running for two years has attracted a lot of attention. It is now doing its first proper review to see what lessons can be learned and how the service can be improved.
Brent Council started its flexible childcare initiative after the early years team met with the employment and welfare reform team as part of new legislation being introduced. Their aim was to look at issues which might support people to get back to work. The feedback they received was that people were not attending job interviews because they had no childcare.
They also knew that many people in Brent were doing shift work and that they had difficulty finding childcare to fit around their hours and that free entitlement to childcare [for three and four year olds] did not cover non-traditional hours.
“It was clear that something needed to be done,” said Sasi Srinivasan, Early Years Manager at the Council.
They decided that high quality childminders could offer one to one care in a home-based setting and were already doing this in an ad hoc way. The council thought it could harness what was already available and promote it better to the public, creating a sustainable service in the face of funding challenges.
They drew up a list of childcare providers who could offer care at short notice, including those who could provide overnight, weekend and out of normal hours care. Once the proposal had been formed they sent it out to all the registered childminders on their books. They thought they might be able to recruit five in each of the five localities they covered, but in fact 38 came forward so some went on a waiting list because the council wanted to roll the initiative out in a manageable way. The council worked with the childminders to define the offer and did quality assurance checks. “We were very clear that we didn’t want the children to get lost in the employment agenda,” says Srinivasan. “Children are at the heart of what we do.” That message was sent out to their partners, including the Job Centre Plus. They recommended that parents looking for jobs visit the childminders before using them and ensure they felt comfortable with them so when a job interview came up they and their children were ready.
The initiative was launched in March 2014 and involved a list of flexible childcare resources for parents on one of their web pages. The council knew there was a demand, but were not sure what the reaction would be. There was a lot of press coverage and interest from the government. Two years later Srinivasan says they are still getting enquiries from the media and other councils.
She states: “It was about taking small steps that had great impact. People used it in times of great need. What we did wouldn’t work for everyone, but it helped start the conversation about what we should be doing and got people talking.”
Asked about the problem with dwindling childminder numbers, Srinivasan says some of the childminders took on assistants to enable them to increase their ratios.
Srinivasan says the initial driver for the scheme was employment, but that it has worked on many levels, for instance, a lot of parents do not have extended family nearby and might need someone to look after their children if they have to go to hospital.
The first proper review of the initiative is under way. Brent Council recently sent out questionnaires to the 48 childminders now taking part to find out how it is working, how many children they have looked after, how many came at short notice, how many stayed overnight or at the weekend, what the successes and challenges were and whether they need more support. So far the feedback from 23 childminders has been interesting. Some 57 children have been looked after through the scheme. It has been used by parents doing shift patterns, for hospital stays, evening classes and emergency circumstances.
Last year one mum called all the council’s departments in a panic. She had to go for emergency surgery for cancer in two days’ time. She had a two year old and had no-one to leave her child with and no money. Different council teams came together and found funding to pay for flexible childcare. Her child had childcare secured just before she went into hospital and then received support while she was recovering. The child is now in nursery. “It is quite an emotional thing,” says Srinivasan. “This initiative is going beyond what we had anticipated.” She adds that there is a lot of potential that could be explored for the scheme, for instance, providing support for those who are victims of domestic violence.
Some of the childminders had not had any flexible bookings while others had had too many and found it hard to balance early mornings and late evenings. Some said overnight stays disrupted their family’s routine.
Srinivasan says her team need to be up to date on tax credits and tax-free childcare so they can ensure parents can make an informed choice about childcare.
She adds that feedback from parents so far has been very positive. It helps them stay in work and relieves their stress. “They have someone they trust who they can leave their child with. It meets their needs on many levels,” she says.
*Picture credit: Brent Council.