Is informal childcare an untapped resource for Londoners?


The Holiday Childcare Survey 2017, released today by the Family and Childcare Trust, contains few surprises. The bottom line is that parents across the country are facing exorbitant holiday club costs for their school-aged children this summer. The average weekly cost of holiday childcare stands at £125 – a cost which has been rising steadily year on year since 2010, including a 5% jump on last year’s average cost.[1] The financial burden is overwhelming for many parents.

Parents in the capital are among those facing higher than average costs for holiday childcare this summer. Londoners also face significant costs throughout the year, with childminders (for both pre-school and primary school aged children) and nursery places much more expensive than in other parts of the country.[2] Furthermore, London’s childcare profile is unique: usually in areas where formal costs exceed the average, parents use a lot more informal childcare to compensate – childcare provided by non-parental family and friends. Yet research has shown this is not the case in London, where use of informal childcare is low. The reasons behind this are under-researched, but it’s been hypothesised that many people in London have moved to the city from elsewhere in the country (and beyond), and therefore do not have relatives close by to call upon to help look after their children.[3] The result is that many parents in London who want to work (or to work more hours) are unable to do so, to the detriment of their family finances – not to mention their wellbeing and sense of purpose.

Undoubtedly, the long-term solution to the childcare crisis needs to involve greater access to affordable formal childcare. Evidence suggests that formal childcare and early years education could lead to better developmental and educational outcomes for the youngest children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. For older children, holiday clubs offer continuity and structure, broadened horizons and the opportunity to make new friends.

However, formal childcare isn’t the be-all and end-all. We should also encourage and enhance the use of informal arrangements. It has been shown that while parents value formal childcare for the learning and development opportunities it offers, they value informal childcare for the caring environment it provides.[4] A child sharing quality time with people close to them, other than their parents, is the foundation of a future support network that could serve them well for years to come as they grow up and become adults.

Parents in the capital may not have family nearby to help with childcare, but they do have trusted friends and colleagues. So why does informal childcare usage remain low? A key factor is likely to be that Ofsted regulates informal childcare provided by people from outside the family, unlike care by those within the family. For example, if I look after my best friend’s child in my own home for the day, and my friend pays me or contributes towards food costs, I can be required to register with Ofsted as a childminder.[5] The intention behind requirements such as these is good. After all, we all want to ensure that children are protected from harm. But it seems bizarre that people cannot entrust their child to a good friend in the same way that they can to a family member.

Of course, some parents make informal arrangements regardless, breaking the law in the process (knowingly or unknowingly). Anecdotal evidence from online forums suggests that others are put off from making informal arrangements with friends or colleagues because they do not understand the law and fear being caught on the wrong side of it. Either way, parents in London are paying the price of onerous regulation that prevents them from making honest use of a no cost (or low cost) childcare option, leaving them to the mercy of soaring formal childcare costs or forcing them out of employment. We need to consider making the Ofsted registration process simpler for close friends and colleagues of parents – perhaps through the introduction of a light touch, less demanding set of registration requirements, to reflect the trust parents already have vested in those they choose to look after their children.

Parents should not feel that they have to use informal childcare if they do not want to, nor should friends and family feel that they have to provide it. There needs to be a significant increase in the amount of quality, affordable childcare available to families across the country. But for many families, the ideal solution might be a mix of informal and formal care, drawing upon the strengths of both. For Londoners contending with higher than average formal costs, making informal childcare easier and less confusing could make a real difference.