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Flexible childcare a less-than-perfect fit for many

Work is now flexible for many people, so why isn’t childcare similarly pliant?

Although successive governments have attempted to address this issue, they have inexplicably failed. Both Labor’s 2014 childcare flexibility trials and the Coalition’s nanny pilot, which is still running, have had worryingly low uptake rates, advised Dr Michelle Brady, research fellow at the University of Queensland’s School of Social Science.

Brady surmised that this may be due to inadequate consultation with families. She addresses this in her research on childcare flexibility, which she will present on Friday at the 2016 Social Impact Festival, hosted by the Centre for Social Impact at The University of Western Australia.

In aiming to understand why government solutions to inflexible childcare have failed, she is interviewing families about their childcare frustrations and desires, as well as deriving results from the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Childcare and Early Childhood Learning, which “…found that Australia’s childcare system does not meet the realities of a 24/7 economy”, Brady advised.

Her key finding so far? “Flexibility isn’t one thing,” she stated. “It varies according to occupation and income. Professionals want more options for in-home care [such as au pairs], as they tend to work quite long hours. Shift workers, on the other hand, are often looking for much cheaper care.”

Yet even these categories are generalised, as Productivity Commission Inquiry respondent Renee Strachan illustrated. In her submission to the inquiry, she wrote, “There are various reasons why families use au pairs (despite the common perception they are for the wealthy). [They may be employed by] shift workers, those who cannot secure a spot in childcare, defence families, those who cannot afford large childcare bills or families of children who do not cope in noisy childcare settings and need one-to-one care.”

The situation differs again for families with multiple children. “Being able to access aligned care, in one location [for all children], is what works best for them,” Brady suggested.

Not only, per Brady’s research, does the notion of flexibility vary between families; it will probably diverge widely amongst stakeholders. That’s why, for the next part of her research project, Brady intends to interview service providers and policymakers. In 2018, she will present her findings to these diverse groups, informing them of areas of agreement. With more than half of the people in dual earning couples working outside of standard business hours, according to the latest ABS statistics, for many parents, flexible childcare probably can’t come soon enough.

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