Childcare in London

The costs are so high and the choices seemingly endless..where on earth do you start in making such an important decision?

Obviously in an ideal world, you'd be able to sort out all your childcare arrangements while you are still pregnant and have time to explore the options, however this is unrealistic for most and therefore you will be trying to sort this out whilst dealing with the physical and emotional demands of being a new parent.

There will probably be excellent, average and mediocre childcare in your area, and it is important to devote as much time as possible in finding out exactly what the local options are for you. Since good quality childcare is in great demand, you have to plan ahead. Costs vary greatly from area to area and they depend on the type of childcare you choose. It’s a good idea to ask friends for recommendations, ring local nanny agencies or contact your local social services to find out more.

Entrusting a stranger with your child is a big step but there are a few ways to make sure you maximise your chances of finding a good match.

Research ofsted reports since all childminders and day carers must be registered by Ofsted (that includes a criminal record check) you can simply ask to see a registration certificate. Reports are normally also available on line so you can see the detail of the inspector's findings.

Make the most of parenting forums which are not only a place to make new friends but can also be valuable resources for get parenting and childcare tips.

The best way to find out whether a person will suit your needs is to meet face to face with people on your shortlist and talk to them about things that are important to you.

Follow up references & have a written contract to ensure that everything is above board and formalised from the outset. Also make contingency plans for alternative care in case of an emergency.

Types of Childcare available:

The oldest form of childcare is to have a member of your family looking after your children. This is likely to be the most cost-effective form of childcare and will normally lead to the child feeling happy and secure being left with someone they know well when you're a work. Your children will also be familiar with the environment - either your own house or your relatives'. This option also has the advantage that you can largely stick to your child's existing routine (diet, nap times, etc.); nurseries and childminders might not be able to do this as they will need to consider the practical aspects of dealing with several children as well as their own internal routines.

There are still downsides to this kind of arrangement though. Asking parents (or in-laws) to babysit for the odd night out is a completely different thing to them looking after your children on a permanent, regular basis. This option will only work if you have a good, honest relationship with the person that will be looking after your children since both sides should feel comfortable when it comes to raising issues without fear of insulting the other side. A lot of people feel a bit guilty about having a family member deal with such a large amount of responsibility without some form of recompense, so it might be a good idea to offer some sort of payment.

A major source of tension in this kind of relationship can be where relatives don't agree with or don't follow your wishes in relation to childcare and child rearing. Arguably, this arrangement also leads to the child missing out when it comes to mixing with their contemporaries unless they are taken to baby groups and other activities involving young children on a regular basis.

Generally, child minders look after children under 12 in the child minder's home; they often also collect school-aged children from a nearby school. In many cases they are mothers themselves and in any case will usually have done a short, pre-registration course and have undergone police and health checks. Depending upon the size of the childminder’s home, they may look after three children under five (with not more than one child younger than one year); six children between five and seven years old or six children younger than eight years old (with up to three children younger than five years old, and one under one year).

An advantage of having a childminder look after your child is that your child will be able to enjoy the company of other children in a home environment. Some childminders also look after children part–time or at weekends and early evenings which might suit your needs. Often the charges are lower than what you would have to pay for a nursery or a nanny.

A disadvantage could be that you have to take the baby to the minder, which may mean that your day starts relatively early in order to allow time for your child to be dropped off. Another issue is that you may not agree with the childminder’s views on important things such as feeding and discipline. You should discuss these issues when choosing a childminder and in any case in advance of leaving your child with them. Bear in mind that childminders are often busy and may have a waiting list so you may need to book your place early. AU –PAIR:
Au pairs are typically young women aged between 17 and 27, who come to the UK from another country to, in the first place, learn the language. They normally live with a family and get a small amount of pocket money (usually around £50 per week) as well as board and lodging. In return, they look after the children and help in the house. The Au pairs' working hours are limited by the Home Office to five hours a day, or seven hours if the girl is an ‘au pair plus’, who would then also earn a little more. Your Au-pair should have two free days a week, and be able to attend English classes if she wishes. Since normally your au-pair lives with you, part of her salary is in the form of board and lodging, so the costs are low. Other advantages are that she will babysit in the evenings and she will also do some housework. The biggest disadvantage could be that the au-pair might not have any experience of looking after children. Also, you will need space to accommodate her and be very clear about things like telephone/internet use, friends or boyfriends. In some cases an au-pair might be very homesick which can be a difficult thing to deal with. Normally, au-pairs are not appropriate for looking after young babies.

Nannies look after your children in your home; they normally also keep the childrens’ rooms clean, do a bit of shopping and prepare the childrens’ meals. By sharing one nanny with another family, or by having a live-in nanny, you can reduce costs.

Your nanny will either have a recognised childcare qualification or she will be qualified by experience in all aspects of child care. A big advantage of having a nanny is that your child stays at home while you go out which means that you won’t have to dress the child or prepare bags, etc..before you leave for work. Also, your child will be cared for by only one person and, unless you share a nanny, gets all of the nanny’s attention. The nanny will also care your child if s/he is ill. With a nanny, you can decide what hours you would like her to look after your child; most nannies also are willing to do early mornings or late evenings.

Since your nanny is your employee, you will have to pay her salary, tax and National Insurance. Nannies do not have to be registered under the Children Act, so you should make sure you follow up references. If you only have one child, you might find a nanny an expensive option, but if you have two or more children, a nanny might be cheaper than a nursery or even a childminder.

Nurseries are not the same as nursery schools. Nursery schools operate during school hours and generally only take children from the age of three while a day nursery or a workplace creche normally operates for at least 50 weeks per year and cares for children from four months to five years. A workplace creche generally is the same as a nursery, just that it’s for the babies and children of parents of a particular employee; in most cases it is on site, and it’s run at a subsidy for the parents.

State-run nurseries are rare and places may be limited to families with special financial needs. Generally, nurseries are privately run, which means charges vary. By contacting your social services department you can find out what is available in your area.

All nurseries must be registered under the Children Act; in most nurseries the children and babies will be cared for by qualified and unqualified staff, with the ratios of qualified to unqualified staff as well as the number of children per carer, being strictly laid down.

An advantage of a nursery is that it is a very reliable environment; a nanny or childminder may be sick on occasion, but a nursery will be always open for business. To ensure they are keeping up the required standards, nurseries are inspected on a regular basis by the social services department.

Nurseries normally arrange varied activities for the different age groups, trips out and celebration of festivals. But some parents feel that nursery care is too institutional, particularly for babies. Your child will not have the advantage of bonding with one particular person, since s/he will be looked after by several carers.

Nursery hours also are less flexible and might have opening hours which do not fit around your work times. Another disadvantage is that if your child is ill, he will not be able to go to the nursery and you will have to arrange alternative childcare. This can be a real headache for parents, particularly in the first year or so when children are prone to catching lots of bugs and germs from the other children in the nursery.

For further information you can contact the Day Care Trust, or the National Childminding Association.

There are other options, such as Sure Start Children's Centres which are service centres for under five year olds and their families. Depending on the Sure Start centre, services include early education and childcare, support and advice for parents as well as local childcare options, child and family health services. There, parents can also get help with getting into work.

A toddler group is usually a group of adults and children, who provide activities for children, normally for under five year olds. Toddler groups are normally run by parents. For a small charge, parents, grandparents, carers etc. can attend together with their children. The money is used to pay for the toys, insurance, activities and refreshments. Basically it does not matter what age your child is – you can attend a toddler group even with a new born baby. A toddler group is also an opportunity to establish friendships.

Pre-schools and playgroups are another option. They generally provide play time and often early education for children between the ages of three and five.

Out-of-school 'kids' clubs are an option for school-aged children. An out-of-school club generally offers care out of school hours, for example before or after school hours. They are a safe, stimulating place where your child can play , relax/ read in a ‘quiet area’ or take part in activities such as arts, crafts, games, sport, drama and crafts. Some of the clubs also offer holiday care. However, since the clubs are not open access, of the children must be registered with the group and parents/carers will have to collect them.

What is the right type of childcare for your family?

Choosing the right type of childcare for your family and your circumstances can be difficult, so you should spend some time thinking about what you and your children are like, what exactly you need, what you’d like the person who is looking after your child to do, etc..

Au pairs for example are not the right thing for families who are uncomfortable with having a young person from abroad living with them. Also, au pairs generally only work part time (normally no more than 25 hours per week) and should not look after children under two by themselves, nor should they be expected to do more than two evenings of babysitting each week or look after your children when you are on shift work every night.

Childminders reach out to a wide range of parents, from professionals to the local shop assistant. The attraction lies in the fact that the hours worked are usually flexible and convenient. Childminders may work days, nights and weekends if you find the right one!.

Nannies are the right thing for you if you prefer your children to be in the familiar environment of their own home with a sole carer. They also suit parents that work long hours. However, for parents on a low income a nanny might simply be too expensive.

Nurseries are a good option for parents who want their children to be around children of the same age or for parents who want their child to be in a particular environment with playrooms, interactive outdoor areas and specialist carers. They won’t work for those who work irregular shift patterns or for families without any nurseries located near their home or workplace.What financial help is available in relation to childcare costs?

In many cases you can get help towards the cost of childcare from the government. If you are eligible for tax credits, you might also qualify for additional help for your childcare costs through the childcare element of Working Tax Credit. This could be up to 80% of the cost of childcare. Call the Tax Credit helpline on 0845 300 3900 to find out more.

Financial and/or practical assistance may also be available from your employer. If you are working and pay for childcare your employer may be able to help you with some of your childcare costs, particularly as this has tax advantages both for you and for the employer as nursery provision and childcare vouchers are free of tax and national insurance. That will be very important for people on lower incomes and in lower-skilled jobs since they often more difficulties balancing work and home life.

For parents in London, there’s the London Childcare Affordability Project (CAP) the aim of which is to provide access to cheaper childcare for children under five. The types of childcare available include flexible childcare places that suit your needs and at an affordable hourly rate; full daycare places for no more than £175 a week (it might be even less if your child is between three and four years old) with all the childcare providers being registered.

To be eligible for CAP at least one of your children must be aged five or younger. You also must qualify for Child Tax Credit at a higher rate than the family element (more than £545 per year). You have to be able to provide evidence of this to a childcare provider by showing them your annual tax credit award letter from HMRC.

Whatever your circumstances, all three and four year olds are entitled to free early education places paid for by the state. This amounts to 15 hours of free early learning a week for 38 weeks of the year.

For more information you can contact your local London Children’s Information Service on 0800 2 346 346.