Bouquets and brickbats: Why nannies are attracting both | Women's Agenda

Bouquets and brickbats: Why nannies are attracting both

Those of you who even skim over Women’s Agenda might notice that over the past 24 hours we have published a variety of different opinions on the government’s planned trial subsidising nannies.

Some have welcomed the $246 million pilot of home-based care, others have denounced it.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it’s a positive step that will boost women’s workforce participation.

“We need to find ways to improve rates of female participation in the workforce, and support for families to use nannies helps to achieve this,” ACCI CEO Kate Carnell said.

“We will watch the two-year trial with keen interest and anticipate that it will create the platform for subsidised nannies to be available to many more families. Nannies provide households, particularly those with several children or parents working unpredictable hours, with the flexibility they need.”

A coalition representing a broad cross section of business, non-government, industry and women’s lobby groups including Women on Boards and the National Foundation of Australian Women echoed this sentiment.

 “The program should enable greater workplace participation by making childcare more affordable for middle to lower income shift workers who don’t have either the income or regular hours that enable them to access mainstream child care services,”

Coalition spokespersons Claire Braund and Marie Coleman said.

The Parenthood, an advocacy group for Australian parents, responded to the announcement with less enthusiasm.

“Whilst nannies will make it easier for some shift-work families, our results show that the majority of Australian parents believe affordable high quality early learning and care should be the absolute priority for government before extending tax payer money to help pay for babysitters,” The Parenthood’s executive director Jo Briskey says.

Early education and care sector consultant Lisa Bryant yesterday expressed her legitimate concerns about funding a childcare option outside the national quality framework.

Why the inconsistency? Why is there no single narrative on whether this deserves bouquets or brickbats?

Because, essentially, there are two very important policy objectives at play. One is the quality of early learning and care that is delivered to Australian children. The second is the facilitation of more parents – mostly mothers – returning to work. In some respects these are two separate policy objectives but, in the realm of government funding, they are linked together by the affordability and availability of childcare.

Both the quality of education offered to young children and the increased workforce participation of women are important. Both can potentially deliver significant economic and social benefits.

From an educational and developmental standpoint, home-based care will not necessarily deliver the same benefits of an early learning program delivered by properly-trained educators in a childcare centre.

But, equally, there are many families for whom even the most fantastic childcare cannot assist. If you do not work standard hours or if you are unable to secure a spot in a centre, then the benefits are moot. Plenty of families fit into one or both of these categories. It is also true that nannies offer flexibility to working parents that childcare centres can’t.

As a working parent who employs a nanny one day a week and uses childcare three days a week I know the benefits, the drawbacks and the intricacies of these topics intimately well.

Like many other families living in a densely populated area, we struggled to find a childcare position for our second daughter. Despite putting our then-unborn, unnamed second child on a waiting list for a childcare centre when I was 12 weeks’ pregnant, it wasn’t until she was 14 months old that we got her a spot. I was offered this job when she was seven months old so we ended up employing a nanny three days a week to fill the gap.

We kept our eldest daughter in the childcare centre three days a week because we couldn’t run the risk of losing her position, when her little sister got in. For seven months our monthly childcare bill was double our rent in Sydney. It got a lot cheaper when we got both girls into the same fantastic childcare centre three days a week but we still use a nanny one day a week.  Why?

There is an economic rationale but there is also a compelling balancing-work-and-home reason. The childcare rebate of $7,500 runs out for us at about 10 months using childcare 3 days a week. Paying a nanny is more expensive but it’s not much more expensive when we factor in that if we used childcare 4 days a week the rebate would be cut out another month or so earlier.  

Having a nanny also guarantees one day a week where even if the girls are sick, my husband and I can both go to work. It means one day a week where we don’t have to dress, pack and rush the kids out the door. It means one day a week we don’t have the mad dash to the childcare centre before it shuts. It takes the pressure off in more ways than one.

Neither of the two nannies we have used have had formal childcare training but I would venture they provide an extraordinary benefit to our family regardless. Of course that sounds self-serving – why would I want to believe my children aren’t benefitting from our arrangement? I wouldn’t. But equally I wouldn’t blindly believe our arrangements were working well, if they weren’t.

The two nannies we have employed are an integral part of our village. It is difficult to adequately describe the bond they have developed with our children but it is a sight to behold. It is a different schedule and program to the days they go to “school” but our girls genuinely love their home day and I am reluctant to undersell its importance.  

Equally, I wouldn’t trade our daughters’ childcare positions for all the money in the world. There is not a doubt in my mind that they could be better engaged, stimulated or educated anywhere else.   

In short, I whole-heartedly support high quality, early learning programs. I also whole-heartedly support the use of nannies and recognise the importance of the flexibility this provides families.   

The critical question is what gets priority in government funding? It’s not an easy question to answer. In an ideal world Australia would follow the lead of countries like England and move towards providing universal access to high quality preschool programs for every child. That is unlikely to happen, at least not in the immediate future.

Whilst that’s not available, and even if was, trialling a new investment in home-based care to address the short supply of childcare positions and the limitations of childcare centre hours, is welcome.     

This issue, like the debate that raged about paid parental leave and childcare needs to be inclusive. It need not be either or. There is a clear imperative for investing in the education delivered to children in the richly formative early years of their lives. Similarly there is a clear imperative for investing in infrastructure, like home-based care that better enables parents to work. We need to keep our eyes on both prizes.  

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