Slide mum

Nannies give families more flexibility, but it can come at a cost.

They were once considered a luxury for the super wealthy, but nannies are becoming more commonplace in average Aussie homes.

And if Tony Abbott gets his way, more families will soon be able to rely on in-home childcare.  

Ninety-nine per cent of my clients are just hardworking families who want good-quality childcare and a good work/life balance 

The Opposition Leader recently announced that he’s considering subsidising nannies in his proposed $3.5 billion parental leave scheme, saying that an incoming Coalition government would seek advice on making childcare assistance more flexible.

"This is not just a women's issue or a family issue, it's an economic issue," he told The Sunday Age. "We want as many women as [possible] to be able to have challenging and demanding careers, rather than having to fit a bit of work in around the edges."

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten disagreed with the proposal, saying it lacked a realistic budget.

“Unless he's got a secret plan … to give all his money to pay for a nanny in every house, then life is too short to waste on ideas that are not fully thought out,” he said.

But it’s an idea welcomed by many, with nannies becoming an increasingly popular alternative to childcare as parents juggle careers with the needs of their children.  

Cathy Clark, who runs the My Little Friend Nanny Agency in Sydney's Ashbury, says the majority of her clients are just busy families looking for support.

“In the last five years, I haven't placed anyone with a non-working parent who only has one child,” she says. “Ninety-nine per cent of my clients are just hardworking families who want good-quality childcare and a good work/life balance.”

But there’s still a lingering prejudice that nannies are a more indulgent form of childcare. The federal government will pay half of a family's childcare fees, but its “registered care” benefit will buy just one hour with a nanny a week. Its rationale is that it can’t monitor the standard of care that nannies provide, and it doesn’t want taxpayers footing the bill for any domestic duties nannies may carry out.

But social policy experts argue that in the absence of universally available, quality childcare, the government must subsidise nannies if it wants to increase female participation in the workforce and bolster Australia's productivity.

Nearly half of Australian children under two have both parents employed. An Australian Bureau of Statistics 2008 childcare survey found that 3.3 per cent of under twos in care were looked after by a nanny or au pair, rising to 4.6 per cent of three to five-year-olds, and 4.2 per cent of six to eight-year-olds. Anecdotal evidence suggests the proportion of families using a nanny has risen markedly since then. Dial An Angel agency has recorded a 15 per cent increase in the number of parents wanting “part-time professional childcare in the home” since 2005.

For many working parents formal childcare isn’t flexible enough, as their jobs don’t always fit the rigid opening hours of childcare centres. There’s also less disruption to the child's routine when they’re looked after at home, say nanny advocates, and the bonus is that nannies will also shop, clean and cook.

Parents are willing to pay a premium for flexibility, especially when children get sick or it’s the school holidays. It costs $250 (plus superannuation) to hire a qualified nanny for 10 hours, almost double the cost of a day in childcare, but once you have two or more children, the fees are quite comparable.

Roxanne Elliott, who runs online childcare information service CareForKids, says she has noticed a big trend towards nanny sharing, where families split the cost to make it more affordable.

Nannies are particularly popular for babies and toddlers, partly because there’s a chronic shortage of 0-2 places at formal childcare centres, and partly because many mothers prefer one-on-one care for younger children.

But the formal childcare sector opposes subsidies for nannies, arguing that they don’t provide the same regulated quality of early education services.

What do you think of Tony Abbott's suggestion? Would you support his plan? Have your say and vote in the poll on the Essential Baby forum.

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