It's complicated: multiple childcare arrangements

Parents hold hope that childcare reform will make the juggle easier.
Parents hold hope that childcare reform will make the juggle easier. 

My mother returned to work when I was three months old and like many parents, did what she needed to do to ensure my sister and I were in constant care, using family day care, preschool, vacation care, baby sitters, and before and after school care, none of which she felt completely comfortable with, so it usually fell to my grandparents to care for us.

And it’s a common scenario. Recent ABS figures found that 33.6% of families used both informal and formal care for children aged 0-14, and that grandparents are the largest providers of informal care.

There was no reason established why parents used multiple child care providers or the effect it had on family life. Some may find it suits their needs better but possibly most prefer to use several forms of childcare because they want to avoid or balance out costs or they may also have difficulty securing one form of child care as often as they require it, and consequently have to organise their childcare as a sequence of blocks of time spent with different carers, in order to meet work obligations.

And because many mothers are returning to work after less than six months of maternity leave, as shown in Care for Kids Annual Childcare and Work Participation Survey, they may choose informal care to avoid placing children in centre based care for too many hours each week.

The term child care is defined as any kind of non parental care but can be formal or informal. Formal provisions of childcare are government regulated types outside the child’s home and informal childcare is non-regulated and can be outside or inside the child’s home.

But the difference between standard work hours and school hours still leaves a gap in care in mornings and afternoons for school children aged 5-12 years, and the only formal option is before and after school care.

The Government is currently undertaking a huge reform to Australia’s formal child care system, led by the Minister for Childcare and Early Childhood Education, Kate Ellis, to be phased in from July. The reforms revolve around the establishment of the National Quality Agenda, which Ellis says will deliver a higher standard of care for children.

“The new framework will include lower staff to child ratios, new qualifications requirements for all early childhood education workers, a transparent quality ratings system and increasing preschool participation so that all children can attend 15 hours of preschool per week in the twelve months before starting school. Families will benefit from the peace of mind that comes from knowing their child is receiving high quality care, regardless of the location or service,” Ellis says.

But although these reforms all help in ensuring childcare is safe and educational, the reforms still need to address other childcare issues for Australian with complex childcare arrangements.

The first issue is cost. Rebates are available to parents who use formal childcare but Roxanne Elliot, creator of child care information website, Care for Kids says, “Cost is one of the main reasons parents are using a combination of formal and informal care so I’m concerned the reforms may have an impact here.”

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The cost of childcare is a huge factor in many women deciding to work from home, work part time or not work at all. Gabrielle recently started her own photographic and location scouting business Photo Loco to care for her 18 month old son Jack, but she still uses informal occasional care to manage her workload. “At the moment if I have a meeting or urgently need to catch up on work I’ll drop Jack at the crèche at my gym which has a flat rate for three hours or call on babysitters,” she says. However she doesn’t receive a rebate for this and made the decision to switch to formal, scheduled care because of the financial benefits. “Next year Jack will be in daycare for two days each week. It is expensive but we will finally receive a rebate.”

Ellis says that the Government is doing all it can to give parents faith in formal care while also remaining affordable. “The estimates by an independent consultancy firm engaged by the Government suggest that any cost increases as a result of the National Quality Agenda will be moderate,” she says. “We have delivered on our promise to increase the rebate from 30 to 50% and this will continue.”

Families that are comprised of children of both school age and children under five face the most problematic situations with regards to logistics and cost. Mother of six, Candice says, “Last year we had one child at school, two children at preschool and the other two at family daycare and we had conflicting start and finish times with the preschool which would often clash with school times and times I started or finished work. So daycare seemed a better option as it eliminated one extra start and finish time but it cost a small fortune even after the benefits.”

Under these circumstances, childcare centres at workplaces could ensure the conflicting pick up and drop off times are made easier and remove some of the costs that are involved with using multiple types of formal care. “Most parents say they would find an on-site centre attractive and we are seeing more Australian companies look at ways they can attract and retain people by offering this,” says Roxanne.

Ellis says the Government rewards workplaces who provide childcare for their employees. “Where childcare is provided on site at workplaces, that employer is exempt from fringe benefits tax. Furthermore the Government will establish care centres in 28 priority locations around Australia and many will be built on school grounds, TAFE, universities and other community land to reduce the need for the ‘double drop off’.” This is definitely a strong point of the Government’s campaign.

But the difference between standard work hours and school hours still leaves a gap in care in mornings and afternoons for school children aged 5-12 years, and the only formal option is before and after school care. ABS figures showed 29% of children received this type of care in an average week, but grandparents were used more often, approximately 39% of the time.

Coby relies on before and after school care as well as help from her eight year old daughter’s grandparents, so she can meet the full time hours required for her job as an office manager. “We have nine permanent spots and Ava has swimming lessons on the afternoon we don’t have a spot to which my partner’s mother will take her and she also helps if I’m held up at work and won’t make it to Ava’s school on time. And if Ava is sick my mother will look after her.”

But even families with well functioning childcare arrangements during the week find their system breaks down when school holidays arrive, presenting problems for parents who only have four weeks annual leave to help them manage care for the eight to ten weeks of holidays given to school aged children every year. This is where grandparents are needed again. “My mother helps during school holidays and sometimes I take Ava to work with me but fortunately my work is family friendly,” Coby says.

There are vacation care operators but there isn’t a regulatory body to help things run smoothly and fees are usually quite expensive. Vacation care should be available to all school aged children in the same way preschool will be available to all children between four and five by 2013, because as Roxanne says, “Finding outside of school care options for school aged children is still a major issue for most working parents. There is a genuine concern that grandparents are being relied on too heavily.”

The solution for giving more parents access to vacation and similar types of seasonal and occasional care is to make more child care centres multi-purpose, so they can offer all the services needed for children of all ages and take the burden off grandparents. Longer hours of operation at multi-purpose centres, as well as having the flexibility to change the hours or times that children are in care, could particularly reduce strain on families and could also be another solution for unforeseen situations, such as business travel or emergencies.

“Under the new National Quality Framework, long day care, preschool, family care and outside school hours care will be covered by one consistent regulatory framework,” says Ellis. “This means that services who offer multiple types of care can undertake one regulatory process and this will reduce red tape and encourage more services to offer multiple care types. For example there are an increasing number of long day care centres that also offer preschool programs.”

Multi purpose child care centres are also important for families who are not able to call on grandparents because of distance or if they are too elderly, ill or are no longer alive, and for parents who work unusual or erratic hours, since the ABS found that about half of families surveyed with two working parents either worked variable hours or were on call, with many working at night. Catherine works in hospitality and utilises long day care for day shifts and has her husband look after the children on night shifts because she has no family to fall back on. “We live away from family and I work the combined day and night hours that I do so that we only need to partially use child care. Hopefully day care will remain available until the kids go to school!”

But formally approved childcare does not always fulfil the needs of all families and this needs to be taken into consideration. Most types of formal care are centre based care and the ABS found that most parents tend to favour a more nurturing environment for babies, only liking to use formal, centre based care once children moved past infancy. This is why Amy asked her two year old son’s grandparents to help with child care but other factors complicated her arrangements, forcing her to use more than one type. “I am a single mother and I rotated between my son’s grandmothers to help with Matty as I felt he was too young to be in daycare but when it was the days for him to be with his father’s mother I had to drive in the opposite direction to her house and back to work through peak hour traffic and I ended up leaving the job. So when I look for another job I will have to use daycare as well as family.”

The issues with formal child care for babies, has led to many women developing inventive informal solutions. “One of my colleagues left the finance company we worked for and joined a small firm run by three women with small children,” mother of two Dianne says. “They hired a group nanny and had a room on the premises where the nanny brought the babies to them to breast feed and it was much cheaper for them.”

Nanny care is much more affordable with a nanny share arrangement, but Rebecca Singh, owner of Nanny Share.com, admits the greatest value of a nanny share arrangement is convenience and flexibility. “Children pick up fewer illnesses compared to a childcare centre which means less hassle in arranging alternate care for sick days, and parents have more time in the mornings and evenings because there’s no need to rush to centres. It’s similar to family day care except that centres must meet a legal ratio of one carer to every five children, whereas there is no regulation on the nanny industry. But you’re entitled to a rebate with family day care whereas the return for employing a nanny is very minimal even though many parents don’t like the level of care a childcare centre can provide,” she says.

Ellis says, “Nannies and baby sitters may register with the Family Assistance Office to become registered carers and parents may then receive the registered care rate of the Child Care Benefit. The benefit is lower than the approved care rate because registered carers are not required to participate in the Quality Assurance system.” But further subsidisation for nannies beyond the current rate is crucial for families with two or more children and children close in age, and the Coalition is looking into this as part of their next election campaign.

The most suitable type of childcare for a family should be decided on a case by case basis by an appropriate government agency, and many parents believe a nanny should be tax deductible when it is the most affordable option for a family. Trust in the formal child care system is important but there must also be better access and diversity of services, and the Government also needs to ensure that the Fresh Ideas for Work and Family Initiative enables parents to spend time with their kids during the working week so that children don’t spend a disproportionate number of hours in full time childcare.

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