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Elyssa Campbell-Barr has just written a comprehensive handbook on one of the key challenges for new parents – childcare. But while she was writing it the ground kept shifting as the Government announced a series of new proposals, the results of which are still to be seen.
She says getting Choosing Childcare published was “like nailing jelly” because there were so many developments to take into account.
The book aims to help parents feel more confident and informed about their childcare decisions. It is written in an accessible style [Elyssa is a journalist] and includes a lot of interviews with and tips from parents who have been there and done childcare in all its forms. “There are lots of tips from different perspectives because what is right for one family is not necessarily right for another. Every family is unique,” says Elyssa. “It’s important parents look at all the options and make an informed judgement.”
As well as looking at the pros and cons of each type of care, she gives ideas of questions to ask and things to look out for when meeting prospective childcarers. There’s practical advice on issues such as paying for childcare, finding provision for children with additional needs and building a good relationship with your childcarer. Every section includes links to details of specialist organisations and publications that provide further useful information, either UK-wide or – where regulations and requirements differ – in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The book is not just about finding childcare either. It also covers issues like flexible working, how to juggle work and family life and parental leave.
Among the challenges parents face is finding flexible childcare to fit around shift or freelance work. Elyssa interviewed parents who worked a variety of different shifts for the book. She says childminders tend to offer the best solution if family is not available, but she agrees that parents who work flexible shifts often have to rely on childminders’ goodwill. “That should be acknowledged and appreciated,” says Elyssa.
“Quite often childminders are an afterthought in legislation and studies, but for lots of people they are the number one choice for the home-based care they provide and their flexibility.” She adds that the increasing bureaucracy childminders face along with rising responsibilities [and low earnings] is causing many childminders to drop out of the childcare business. “It’s a responsible job and it’s not valued as such,” says Elyssa. For many parents, though, their wages are simply not high enough for regular formal childcare and they are forced to fit work around whatever family care they can arrange.
Another issue is childcare costs. The Government has made several proposals which it says aim to bring down those costs, but Elyssa says there are serious concerns about the plans to increase free childcare for preschool children. For nurseries rising costs such as the National Living Wage combine with the fact that many fear government funding for free childcare are unlikely to cover the hourly rate of looking after children, she says.
Underlying all of this, though, is the conflicting evidence on the impact of childcare on children. “There is a real lack of longitudinal evidence about the long term impact of different kinds of childcare and patterns of care through primary school and the teen years because institutionalised childcare is a relatively recent phenomenon,” says Elyssa.
Until then, parents have to rely on their own intuition and other parents’ experiences. She agrees that finding good childcare can make a huge difference to working parents. “It takes some of the worry and guilt away and means they can focus more on their work,” she says.
She was impressed at how much parents wanted to share their experiences for the book and say what worked for them. She adds that she was also struck by the fact that the responsibility for sorting childcare still falls mainly on women. “I did not find one case, except a widower, where the dad was responsible for childcare,” she says. She would like to see parents sharing out the extra tasks linked to having children more equally so that the burden doesn’t all fall on one parent and says they shouldn’t feel guilty about calling in extra help.
Ages and stages
Elyssa herself has two children and lives in West Sussex. Her background is in childcare and education journalism. For several years she edited the National Childminding Association’s membership magazine and she has also edited the National Union of Teachers’ magazine through two spells of maternity leave. She is now freelance.
The book came about after a former colleague at the NCMA set up a publishing company, Cross Publishing, and suggested she write it. Even though she had been writing about childcare for a number of years before she became a mother, she says experiencing it first hand was “an eye opener”. “I was very at ease visiting childminders to interview them, but when it came to questioning them for my own children it was very nerve wracking and daunting. I wasn’t 100% sure of what questions to ask and what I should be looking for,” she says. She hopes her book can help other parents in a similar position.
Her children are now five and three, but they were much younger when she wrote the book. She says the early years can be a struggle and are definitely a shock. But she adds that each stage in a child’s life brings different challenges. She’s now facing shorter school days and school holidays, but she is able to share the juggling with her husband who is also freelance. Like so many other parents, she is facing a life of adapting to the different ages and stages of her children and finding the childcare that works best for each.
*Choosing Childcare is published by Cross Publishing, price £9.99.