Parent co-op nurseries may be the answer to low-cost quality childcare

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Parent-led co-operative nurseries could be an alternative to conventional settings for families in poor areas, according to the New Economics Foundation, which is setting up a pilot project to look at how this childcare model works.

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At Grasshoppers nursery in Hackney parents help out and receive a discount on their fees

The think tank has been inspired by the Grasshoppers in the Park nursery in east London, a not-for-profit limited company, set up 15 years ago  as a parent-led childcare co-operative with the aim to offer families high quality childcare at a lower cost than at a private nursery.

The NEF, which is working with the Family and Childcare Trust, says that it sees a lot of potential in the parent-led co-operative childcare model, and has teamed up with the nursery to build a network that will help parents from low-income areas learn how to set up their own co-operative nursery.

Lucie Stephens, head of co-production at the NEF, said, ‘We are working in partnership with Family Childcare Trust to pilot this model of childcare. The model will be focused on providing high quality childcare, and the aim of this approach is to blend professional skill and expertise with parents’ experience.

‘The international examples that we have explored, for example in New Zealand, Sweden and Germany, have shown that supporting parents through formal and informal training is an important part of the model.

‘By working in partnership in this way the parents are better able to understand and value the skills of the childcare professionals. Informal and formal learning in the setting will have a positive impact on the children's home learning environment.’ 

The planned pilot project will involve scoping a strong pilot site, supporting the participants in securing set-up funding and navigating the legal and regulatory landscape, and advising them on how to be financially self-sustaining.

‘We are also keen to connect with existing nurseries that are operating with this parent-led model, support them to connect to each other where appropriate and share their expertise,’ Ms Stephens added.

Grasshoppers nursery in Hackney demonstrates how qualified staff and parents can work together to offer families more involvement in their child’s childcare at modest fees.

While all parents at Grasshoppers are expected to contribute in one way or another, be it through attending outings or taking some laundry home, parents can reduce their fees by taking on bigger roles. This could be attending the classroom for a full day between 9.30am and 3.30pm once a week, or for helping out with tasks such as admin or fundraising at flexible hours, when parents get a monthly discount of £120.

‘It’s not much, but it is quite significant for some,’ Luciana, [everyone goes by their first name], the nursery manager at Grasshoppers, said.

The fees are banded by income in a bid to attract families from a diversity of backgrounds, and the nursery management prefers to trust parents when they state their income.

Although Grasshoppers is not-for-profit and relies heavily on fundraising, wages paid to staff are above average, with a qualified practitioner at the nursery earning £21,500 a year, despite the nursery making a loss on the free 15-hour entitlement.

‘We want to keep the fees down, and only put them up 5 per cent in June last year. We want to be affordable, and we don’t want to work at full capacity – which we can afford to do because we are not for profit,’ Luciana said.

The families and staff at Grasshoppers have not much understanding for critics who say that involving parents may dilute the quality of care provision in an early years setting.

‘I find this kind of comment really strange,’ Luciana said. ‘Firstly, parents here are mainly extra, and very rarely count toward the child carer ratio. Secondly, parents bring a lot of expertise and skills, some might be singers or musicians, others might be actors or have a particular talent. You don’t need to be qualified to be good with kids.’

The National Day Nurseries Association doesn’t capture any records of how many co-operative nurseries exist in the UK, but believes that only a small proportion of nurseries are run in this way. These would tend to be in larger cities where demand is greatest and there is a close knit community, with Childspace in Brockwell being another London example.

One of the problems seems to be that such settings mainly attract families who can afford taking out time to get involved in their child’s nursery.

‘There are difficulties attracting people from more diverse backgrounds,’ Luciana from Grasshoppers in Hackney said. ‘At the moment we are very much white middle-class. But, this is changing slowly. In order to encourage people from different ethnic and income groups, we offer three free days of six hours a day to parents who earn less than 16k.’

Emma Ackerman, head of programmes at The Family and Childcare Trust, said, ‘It is a challenge to get parents to work for the nursery in order to reduce their costs, and we are looking at a variety of ways for parents to offset costs. Instead of spending time at the setting, parents may help with the governance of the nursery instead which might give them more flexibility.

‘We are looking to formulate a viable model that can enable parents to actively contribute to improving the childcare of their children. We are currently asking: What could the core elements of this be?

‘This is a long-term project we are at the beginning of, so at the moment we are scoping where we could do this and who with, looking at different legal structures, potential sites and local partners - with a focus on areas of deprivation in particular pockets of London, but also outside of the capital.’

Ms Ackerman added that the project was currently in the researching phase, which will conclude by the end of March this year. This exploratory phase is funded by the Young Women’s Trust and the Trust for London.

Like the NEF, the Family and Childcare Trust sees co-operative childcare settings as an opportunity to improve the home-learning environment of children from deprived areas.

‘Affordability is not the only motivator to build such a model,’ Ms Ackerman stressed. ‘We believe there’s a lot of potential for parents to learn skills from professionals at the setting and transfer them to the home-learning environment. We believe parents can benefit a lot from working alongside professionals in the room, which ultimately benefits their children.’

Claire Schofield, director of membership, policy and communications at the NDNA, said, ‘Nurseries such as Grasshoppers show that parent involvement can work in the right circumstances, particularly in London where places are harder to find and cost more.’

She added that co-produced nurseries could be part of the solution to childcare challenges families are facing, particularly in bigger cities, but couldn’t be a ‘substitute for the major reforms to our childcare policy and funding needed to provide the volume of high-quality, affordable places that parents need.’

‘This model is a natural evolution from community playgroups and other non-profit organisations, many of which are NDNA members, where there is a tradition of voluntary management committees, with parents becoming helpers at their local playgroup, for example,’ Ms Schofield added.

‘It’s certainly more likely to work in a non-for-profit organisation where the ethos is different.’

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