For the increasing number of parents whose working week is not the traditional nine to five, finding appropriate childcare can be a major hassle. As one of the eight early implementers of the Government’s 30-hour funded childcare pilot, Swindon Borough Council is focusing on flexibility, investigating how the offer can be delivered for the children of families who work weekends, evenings, or irregular shift patterns.
As with all early implementers except York, Swindon has a limited number of places to offer, so the council decided to proceed in a cautious fashion. Its first step was to publicise the scheme to workers at the Great Western Hospital. ‘We initially partnered with our hospital because they fitted the brief in terms of finding a site which was open 24 hours year-round,’ says Fiona Le Bon, early education strategic lead at Swindon Borough Council. ‘It also felt like a nice story, assisting the hospital with recruitment and retention. The offer is not just aimed at healthcare workers, it’s the whole operation, including the people who keep the toilets hygienic, people who work in the coffee areas which are open all night.’
Although the hospital had enough eligible workers to fill all the places, not all took up the offer, so the council has now extended it to include employers including Honda, BMW, the emergency services, the Royal Mail, Nationwide, Brunel Shopping Centre, National Rail and the Great Western Railway.
Some places have also been kept back to test the need for Saturday childcare, and these places are being offered to children in families where both parents are working at the weekend and require at least five hours of childcare then, with the rest to be taken flexibly during the week.
‘We specifically went to Honda and BMW because both have quite extreme shift working patterns, which we knew had impacted on their staff,’ says Ms Le Bon. ‘We are working with parents to explore the types of childcare which would be useful to them.’
The hourly rate at which settings are funded for delivering the 30 hours is £4.41, paid monthly in advance. Just over half of maintained and PVI settings in the borough are involved in delivering the 30 hours trial, and 10 per cent of funded childminders have also signed up, says Danielle Maundrell, commissioner for education, place planning and funding at the council. ‘One nursery, Play Den, is already on board to offer Saturday hours if there is the demand for it,’ she says. Play Den manager Kate Adams says this will provisionally be from 8am to 2pm, with the option of additional hours.
Other settings, including childminders, are ready to step in if the demand is there. The council had already identified providers willing to offer Saturday hours or flexible weekday hours, such as opening at 6am, during earlier work around capacity. ‘We asked the Government if there was any legitimate reason why we couldn’t deliver early education funded places on a Saturday to assist with capacity issues,’ says Ms Le Bon. ‘We felt this was a creative way of making use of our buildings.’
Although the council knows there is a requirement for Saturday provision, not enough parents have yet taken up the offer, says Ms Le Bon. Some are concerned about cancelling existing provision and then losing out if the Saturday places are revoked once the trial is over. ‘Feedback from parents so far is that they are concerned about whether we could guarantee those places are going to continue after September 2017.’
The council is about to run a significant piece of marketing, including mail shots, to publicise the fact that some settings are available on Saturdays, and hopes this will drive take-up. Families with English as an additional language have had to be targeted carefully. ‘Specific communication needs have arisen out of that,’ says Ms Le Bon. ‘In some communities, childcare tends to arise out of family networks, but often mother and father work back-to-back shifts for the same employer, which can place an immense strain on the families concerned.’
Communication with male workers also has to be carefully thought through. ‘There are a lot of fathers who would be entitled to the offer, but we found that in many cases it is the women of the family making the childcare arrangements. To the male workers it is not something they have responsibility for, so it is not on their radar,’ says Ms Le Bon. ‘Any communication with them has to make sure they really understand the offer.’
Currently some 260 of the 415 places have been allocated, but the council believes that is about to go up. ‘We have got another big communication exercise about to go live, so we expect that to rise quite considerably,’ says Ms Le Bon.
CASE STUDY: PLAYSTEPS DAY NURSERY, SWINDON
Playsteps nursery manager Jo Morris hopes that when the 30 hours are rolled out nationally, settings will have more preparation to help parents understand the eligibility requirements.
‘While we knew Swindon was putting in a bid for the pilot based on flexibility, we only found out it had been accepted at the same time as the parents did, through Facebook and news media,’ she says. ‘Settings that are not involved in the pilot have longer to prepare, and I would advise them to use this time to set out the way they are intending to deliver the 30 hours, and communicate this to the parents.’
Ms Morris suggests staff are provided with an information sheet to help them inform parents. ‘It is not necessarily me parents ask, they ask the staff,’ she says. ‘You could have a fact sheet or a Facebook page, saying these are the criteria and if you think you qualify, or have any questions, get in touch. In some cases, parents can get quite cross because their children are getting the 15 hours, and then we as providers are saying you are not eligible for the 30 hours.’
Playsteps has found that not all eligible families have decided to take up the offer. ‘We were concerned the floodgates would open, but actually many have a well-oiled childcare machine which fits their lifestyle,’ says Ms Morris. ‘Some families only ever used two full days a week – I thought they would want to increase but they say “that is our pattern, we don’t want to change it”.’
Like many nursery managers, Ms Morris is concerned about the effect of the 30 hours on funded two-year-olds. ‘We have just worked hard to get a really high proportion of funded two-year-olds taking up places, and unless things change for these families they will only be entitled to 15 hours when they turn three. Where will they go if we have to double the hours for the 30-hour-funded three- and four-year-olds? There is a big concern there will be children displaced because they are only eligible for the 15 hours.’
The setting has decided that eligible children will only be guaranteed to receive funded hours equivalent to the hours they are already receiving. ‘So if a one-year-old is receiving 20 hours, we can only guarantee 20 funded hours when they turn three, even if they are eligible for 30,’ says Ms Morris. ‘If we have the capacity, we will increase the hours, but we cannot guarantee that.’
James Hempsall, who has the support contract to aid delivery of the 30 hours, talks about marketing
Swindon was quick to link 30 hours with economic benefits and regeneration – and connecting with key partners from day one. Targeting employers is an effective way of reaching eligible families directly, important in a small pilot programme, so as not to generate demand that exceeds supply and funding. Full roll-out will be different though. What has been impressive is their open and honest dialogue with early years providers from the start through things like provider network meetings, newsletter communications and special events, and engaging them in every step.
I was interested to hear a reported nervousness among families who already had established childcare provisions and their reluctance to trust the sustainability of the new offer. A solution here was marketing and communication to support families’ confidence. Swindon has found leaflets and letters are becoming less effective, and other methods of communicating (that lead to word of mouth) are crucial. One of the things we told everyone not to do for two-year-olds was send official council letters out in brown envelopes – they were rejected by parents as scary.
The majority of childcare decisions are still led by mothers, which also has implications for marketing. This does not mean fathers should be excluded, so be careful about language and imagery. Give practitioners the skills to talk with fathers, and challenge them if their default position is to talk to mum. Communications with providers is highly valuable, as providers are able to directly communicate with all parents.
Sound relationships between the local authority and providers, and between providers, do need to be established. This enables joint problem-solving, and a resultant feeling of provider confidence in solutions and sustainability radiates to families to take up the new entitlement.
This goes a long way to countering some of the misinformed and undesirable press that may be negatively impacting families’ choices.