December 18, 2015
Childcare comes in many forms: from nannies and pre-school nurseries to wraparound care and holiday clubs for older children. These services provide essential support for many working parents, in order to balance the often conflicting demands of work and family life. But childcare can be expensive and, in some cases, difficult to find. To reduce the financial burden of childcare, the government introduced a weekly free entitlement to part-time care for all 4 year olds in 2000, which was expanded to include all 3 year olds in 2005. In 2013, this program was further extended to include 2 year olds from low income families. However, to ensure the successful uptake of childcare services, parents need to be fully aware of all the options that are available to them, both in terms of funding and provision. This requires clear channels of communication between a wide range of participating organisations and individuals: including local authorities, childcare providers, health workers and many more. But, how does the system work? And is it functioning as it should?
In order to explore these questions, and many more, the Department for Education recently commissioned its own research on the subject—which aimed to examine the quality and accessibility of existing information on childcare and determine whether the system can be improved. This research was conducted by Ipsos Mori and the Childcare Trust, and was published in February 2015.
The results of this study reveal that most parents use a wide range of resources in order to investigate and inform their decisions on childcare. However, the quality of the information they receive can be extremely variable. Furthermore, some channels of communication that are effective for some parents, are not available to all; whereas other channels of communication, that should be effective for all, are often overlooked.
The most important source of information, by far, for informing parents’ decisions on childcare is through word-of-mouth, either directly from friends and family or through social networking sites, such as Netmums and Mumsnet. Unfortunately, however, both of these channels of communication often exclude parents who are socially isolated. This might be due to linguistic barriers, for parents who don’t have English as their first language, or the ‘digital divide’, for parents on low incomes—with limited or no access to the internet. Single parents, who are often displaced from their communities, as a result of relationship breakdowns, can also be excluded. Another surprising fact to emerge from the study was the general underuse of local government services. Most parents were completely unaware that local authorities have an important role to play in informing decisions on childcare, through the Family Information Service. Indeed, only 5% of parents who were questioned during the study had turned to this service for help.
The single most important factor that influenced the uptake of childcare among parents was cost: clearly it has to be affordable. However, information on the funding and cost of childcare can often be lacking or misleading. In particular, details of free entitlement can sometimes be difficult to find (even from local authorities), and parents often feel misled about additional hidden costs that are not covered by the free entitlement. For example, certain providers require the purchase of extra hours in order to fill a minimum block booking; whereas others may charge top-up fees or impose financial penalties for late drop off/pick up. These additional costs are a particularly significant for families on low incomes.
Certain childcare services were revealed, by the report, to be generally lacking in information for all parents. These include holiday clubs and wraparound care for school-aged children. This is a significant shortcoming of the system, since these services provide essential support for many working parents.
Based on the major results of this study, the author of the report lists a number of recommendations to help improve the quality of communication on childcare. These include improved signposting towards important sources of information (particularly Family Information Services) through existing services that are currently used by all parents, such as GPs and health visitors. The report also recommends the use of more traditional methods of communication, such as verbal communication with health professionals as well as the provision of printed booklets, in order to complement websites and social media. Both measures would particularly benefit parents who are isolated from society; as a result of linguistic or other social barriers. The report also recommends that the quality of the information available to parents should be high, which indicates the need for improvement. However, there are no specific recommendations to improve the communication of hidden costs, or the provision of holiday clubs and wraparound care for school-aged children. It remains to be seen, therefore, whether improvements in these areas will be made in the future.
Written by Rob Hodgkison, Harmony at Home Ltd. All rights reserved, 2015