Caerus: can a flexible childcare app help working parents?

Caerus tries to help families in Scotland find flexible childcare quickly, while also preserving some of the structure that nurseries and childminders need.

Phone showing childcare app

 

Whether we’re booking a train ticket or buying a t-shirt, we’re increasingly used to using apps to filter for exactly what we want and make a purchase within a few minutes. But could the same approach work for childcare?

Caerus is an app that tries to help parents in Scotland find flexible childcare speedily, while also preserving some of the structure that providers such as nurseries and childminders need. This balance between flexibility and structure is also important for children’s wellbeing.

Working parents are increasingly looking for childcare on different days and hours each week, rather than fixed days and hours, says Caerus’ chief executive Susan McGhee. Different types of flexible or compressed working arrangements have risen steadily over the last decade, and working from home has risen sharply since the Covid pandemic. 

Flexible childcare has also been a longstanding issue for parents who are shift-workers or freelancers, especially single parents who are often managing childcare on their own.

“The childcare delivery model [largely] hasn’t changed since my children, who are now adults, went to childcare,” says McGhee. “Years ago it was exactly the same – 8am until 6pm, you could only book full-days or half-days, you had to pay for it whether you used it or not. And it’s exactly the same all these years later, it’s crazy.”

How do parents and providers use the app?

Caerus graphic showing parent and nurseries

Caerus launched as a standalone service this year. An initial version of the app launched in 2020, as part of a toolkit created by Flexible Childcare Services Scotland (FCSS), a charity that runs its own flexible childcare settings. The Caerus app aims to widen out FCSS’ flexible approach to all childcare providers, including nurseries, childminders, and school-holiday clubs. There are currently over 100 providers and almost 1000 parents using it.

Parents can create a profile on Caerus’ website and then search for childcare (with filters for children’s ages, when they need care, location, and so on). Childcare providers can create profiles with calendars showing their available slots, plus tools to manage staff rotas and children’s reports. Caerus’ core service is free.

When parents submit a booking request or enquiry, the provider gets in touch with them and undertakes their own registration process, so that they can discuss the child’s needs and any other queries in detail. If this all goes smoothly, the provider can “invite” parents onto the app so they can book quickly in future.

McGhee stresses that Caerus users are not simply dropping their children off at different places everyday. Parents tend to use 1-2 providers where their children have been settled in, and the app allows them to book flexibly with those providers. “The children definitely aren’t going to random places where they don’t know the team who are caring for them…In general they go to one service, possibly a second service,” she says. 

Can you run a nursery flexibly?

Some providers have initially been wary about this new approach, as they’re used to running a business based on fixed occupancy numbers. In these situations, McGhee encourages providers to try offering a few flexible spaces and seeing what happens. 

“A lot of nurseries aren’t operating at full capacity, so we say to them: start by being flexible with your spare capacity. If you’re operating at 80% capacity, then you’ve got 20% [of spaces] everyday that are unsold, so offer those flexibly,” she says. “Then you’re attracting [parents] who might not have been able to use you, if they had to book a rigid regular pattern.”

In recent years, apps such as Bubble and Koru Kids have launched to allow parents to book nannies on a flexible basis. This model is somewhat trickier for nurseries and childminders, who have to meet legal requirements on staff-to-children ratios. This can potentially make it hard to manage flexible bookings and find fluctuating numbers of staff.

But it is possible to make it work – and it might increasingly become necessary as demand from parents rises. FCSS runs 23 flexible childcare settings. Third Door, a co-working space in London, has an on-site nursery that offers parents a monthly package of hours to use as they wish. The Caerus app allows providers to set their own rules on how much notice they need for bookings, minimum hours, and cancellations. 

Many families can save money with flexible childcare by only paying for the exact hours that they need, but they also benefit in terms of their wellbeing, McGhee says. “We have parents saying…if I have to pre-pay for full days at nursery, I feel I have to use them,” she says. “Whereas, if I have a day off, I could use that money to do something nice with my child instead.”



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