Region flagging in childcare services

IS your child the victim of a childcare 'postcode lottery'? Four years after the launch of a government strategy on childcare, a new survey claims places are more or less available according to the area in which you live.

By Debbie Watson

IS your child the victim of a childcare 'postcode lottery'? Four years after the launch of a government strategy on childcare, a new survey claims places are more or less available according to the area in which you live.

East Anglia seems to be at the bottom of the list for nursery places and after- school clubs.

IF you've recently become a parent or opted to go back to work after several years of stay-at-home parenting, you'll probably have some understanding of the inevitable childcare dilemma.

You'll probably have trawled the directory for nurseries, visited countless childminders and debated the benefits of grandparent carers. And still you might still have emerged without solution.

Well, according to the very latest research, you could in fact be living in the wrong place altogether when it comes to sealing yourself a nursery place for your tot.

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Eastern England emerged in a survey by the Daycare Trust as one of the areas with the least day nursery places in the UK.

In fact, it also rated as one of the worst places for after-school clubs.

Given that childcare decisions are already hard enough for parents, this reality is something of a blow to those in Suffolk.

It means that, not only are we juggling the issues of who should care for our child, what hours we'll work, and how much the childcare will cost us – but we're also highly likely to be told that there's simply 'no room at the inn.'

Mark Parker, childcare planning manager for Suffolk County Council, fully admits that the county is suffering a shortage of available services.

He says it's something at which his team knows it simply must work hard to improve.

"East Anglia in general is some way behind the national picture for the number of childcare places available, so we are doing lots of work to try to improve on that," he said.

"In particular, we know we need to target certain disadvantaged urban areas of Suffolk and we are doing all we can to try to encourage anyone who may potentially consider setting up a childcare service."

As a general comparison, the county of Suffolk tends to match up alongside the rest of East Anglia in terms of the number of available nursery places for under-fives, and just behind the regional average for the childminding and after-school-clubs it provides.

However, that simply doesn't hide the fact that the region as a whole is flagging well behind many areas in the UK.

The East of England figures read like this:

Day nursery places: 68 per 1,000 (compared with 95 average nationally)

Childminders: 60 per 1,000 (63 nationally)

After-school-clubs: 57 (82 nationally).

Mr Parker admits that these are figures that need to be improved upon.

"We are already doing our best to change the situation," he commented. "We are in the process of working with about 100 new potential childcare providers, and our intention is to bring ourselves in line with the rest of Eastern England – and then to go beyond it.

"Our efforts are based on a system of targeting certain geographical areas, and also identifying parts of the region which may be considered more 'disadvantaged'."

He added: "The fundamental aim is to ensure that that supply and demand of childcare services are equally matched in this county. We know that we have some way to go."

Already the clear divisions in demand and supply are emerging at various points throughout Suffolk.

In the likes of Kesgrave, for example, it is claimed that childcare provision far exceeds the demand upon it.

Ideally, Suffolk parents would see far more situations like this one when they are faced with looking for daytime help.

In an effort to make that a reality at a point in the near future, one of the biggest intentions of the Suffolk County Council Early Years Development Partnership is to tempt more childcare services into existence.

Mr Parker is eager to attract possible candidates.

"We are actively looking for people who want to set up childcare services," he said. "Last year we helped 30 new and existing childcare businesses, and helped 170 childminders to set up.

"If we can keep bringing people on board in those numbers, then hopefully we will soon see a change in the availability of childcare for Suffolk parents."

Insisting that the EYDP system is able to offer substantial help to new childcare facilities, he added: "We can help with business plans, with recruitment of staff and with marketing support to get themselves noticed.''

With British parents still paying the highest childcare bills in Europe, clearly the current absence of places does not help to drive the costs down in areas like Suffolk – causing some parents to seriously reconsider a full-time return to work.

"Yes, it can be expensive on parents and that's part of the reason why we need far more available options for childcare in the marketplace," said Mr Parker.

"Typically, you could pay as much as £250 for a week's worth of childcare for a baby – but also, at the other end of the spectrum you could call upon more inexpensive facilities like after-school-clubs for around £25."

He added: "Also, some parents simply need more awareness about childcare. They need to know that things like Family Tax Credit are now freely available to working parents.

"That really can make a huge saving on a family bill, and it's well worth adults looking at these options."

Daycare Trust, who compiled the latest report on the government's childcare strategy, fully believes that changes need to be made – and not only in the towns and villages of Suffolk.

The organisation has issued a strong warning that the existing 'postcode lottery' will go on affecting the likes of East of Anglia if problems are not tackled quickly.

Stephen Burke, Director of Daycare Trust, said: "We need a rejuvenated national childcare strategy. Without a radical rethink and substantial investment, the Government won't be able to fulfil its ambitions not just to deliver childcare for all but to end child poverty.

"The childcare market is not meeting the needs of British families. The pace of change is too slow and in many cases it is invisible to parents."

He added: "The Government has an opportunity through its current review to catch up with the needs of families and the wider society. Children's centres providing childcare at a price that meets parents' pockets alongside other services for families are needed in every neighbourhood. The Government must not duck the childcare challenge."

That challenge lies equally in the hands of Suffolk's existing childcare providers and in the hands of those adults who may unwittingly make the successful child-carers of the future.


n If you are interested in becoming a childminder, call the Information Service on Ipswich 581493.

NAOMI Wilcox is one of the many newly registered childminders who has set up a service via the Ofsted Early Years Directorate.

This system means that individuals can access grants toward equipment and toys – helping them provide a safe and fun environment for children of all ages.

"I always knew I wanted to work with children, and once I'd had my first child it seemed like the perfect opportunity to be working without sacrificing important family time," said 27-year-old Naomi.

Now a mum of two, Naomi returned to childminding under the Oftsted scheme last year.

She said: "I completed the Childminding Registration Course (run by the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership here in Suffolk) and then started out as a childminder in July.

"I used the grant to help me buy the sort of safety and play equipment that I needed for the children, and I know that it's there if I need to upgrade things as time goes on."

She added "Childminding gives me the best of both worlds because I am still available for my own family. I would encourage anyone to consider giving it a go."

LINDA Evans has been working in childcare since the age of 18.

Now 55, she runs the popular Children's' Day Centre in Capel St Mary, now a charity operation known as the Dawn to Dusk Educare Trust.

"Childcare has changed a great deal over the years I have been involved in it," she said. "Without a doubt, there are a lot more standards and rules to adhere to, and more records to keep. I should imagine for a childminder thinking of starting out, that might be off-putting."

"From my experience I would always encourage people to look at the voluntary arm of childcare.

"We are concentrating on wrap-around care, and on trying to keep the costs to a minimum, because they have clearly been rising dramatically."

Dawn to Dusk takes children from 8am until 6pm, allowing school-aged youngsters to come for breakfast before being taken to school.

Linda added: "I believe that a childcare system like this can give parents more flexible options throughout their day. It seems to be what most families want and need."