Coping with the Crisis in Childcare

 

Linda Vining

"As a sole supporting parent I'm afraid my only option is child care."
"Child care is a rip off. Sometimes I use occasional care if I'm desperate".

 

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Comments such as these confirm the findings of a recent survey that reveals a large proportion of the general community harbour negative feelings about child care. It seems that distrust, anxiety and guilt are recurring emotions when adults talk about child care.

No wonder when the press, TV and even the movies fuel fears of violence, abuse and bullying in child care. Have you seen the Australian movie Police Rescue, where a crazed father reacts violently to a custody battle and threatens to blow up his hostages - a group of ten kindy children and their teacher? The camera alternates between scenes of the vulnerable little captives in their classroom and the petrified parents outside. No wonder people are nervous about child care.

But there is more to the crisis than emotional perceptions. The high cost of care, the shortage of places, lack of resources and lack of flexibility in operating hours and the programs offered are major complaints about the child care industry identified by the Australian Law Reform Commission

Australia's child care system is fragmented and poorly regulated. Over 40 "associations" represent the interest of children's services. Adding to the confusion are government services, community-run centres, local council operations, work-related provisions and privately-run services.

"When first-time parents ring me about child care they are totally lost," says Pearl Sachinwalla, Director of Carlingford West Kindergarten. "Each service has its own entry criteria, its own fee structure and its own times of operation and holidays. And nobody ever tells parents that they need to put their name on a waiting list at least two years before enrolment."

Parents have to distinguish between long day care services, extended hours care, pre-school, kindergarten, occasional care, sessional care, casual care, and permanent care. It's a minefield of terminology and variation. No wonder parents have trouble sorting it all out, especially non-English speaking families.

There is very little parent-friendly literature available to help parents and few referral centres.

Enter private enterprise

To date, inadequate supply and lack of choice have been the biggest problems facing the child care industry but this is changing as burgeoning private enterprise sees an opportunity in the chaos of child care. Private centres are entering the field in great numbers to alter the environment. There is money to be made by entrepreneurial providers who address the needs of their customers, even to the point of arranging haircuts for the children of busy parents. An over-supply of child care services now exists on the Gold Coast and in towns in northern NSW and successful operators are expanding to other locations.

The argument that the quality of care suffers if child care is privatised is disputed by many parents who claim that they enjoy greater benefits and better quality service in the new competitive marketplace. Wendy Figgis from Tweed Heads, a mother of three pre-schoolers says "the quality and range of child care services in this area has vastly improved since the new private centres have stirred up the complacent providers."

Responding to the community desire for a more structured learning environment in early childhood, private schools are branching into pre-school education and offering educationally-based programs. Pre-school children enrolling at Kambala School in Sydney this year will learn French, Japanese and German. At Pittwater House Junior Girls College in Sydney, pre-school children have computer, library and music lessons.

Coping with the crisis

Today's parents are informed and vocal customers. They are concerned with quality and management issues and they are demanding a customer-centred service. How can child care providers respond to these changing community expectations? Firstly, the system needs restructuring but that takes time. What can you do at an individual level?

Being customer-oriented means responding to your parents as "customers" with needs that extend beyond your gate. When you develop a customer focus you look at things differently and instead of focusing on what you will provide you look at what your customers want and how you can satisfy their needs

For example, working parents desperately seek extended hours and a year-round service. Working mother Mary Condellis said "getting to child care at 5.30 pm to collect my son is the most stressful part of my day and then what do I do with him when pre-school goes on holiday?"

With so much talk about unemployment and redundancy parents are nervous about their child's prospects in later life. They see education as an investment in their child's future. They want to start the education process early. Nerida Hall, Director of St Lukes Pre-school at Northmead (NSW) says that by the age of four, parents expect their children to be prepared for primary school. "They want more from pre-school than a child minding service. They want pre-school to provide their children with a head start."

Parents want better communication from the staff. Regular newsletters, local press articles, speeches, presentations and annual reports are vehicles that you can use to assure your customers that you understand their expectations, that you are adaptable, flexible and responsive to their changing needs. Talk about what you can do to improve the quality of their life patterns and routines. Understand the pressures they are under and how this impacts on their children.

First-time parents often need education themselves to understand the developmental stages and personality changes of their children. They need assurance about "normal" behaviour and insights into what to expect next. As professionals in this area you can contribute a great deal to your parents' knowledge and understanding of the early years. In this way you can add value to the service you provide.

When was the last time a staff member rang home out-of-hours just to ask a parent "How is Johnny settling in? Have you any concerns? Is there anything you want to know?" These simple questions can open up a whole range of dialogue. It takes time, but until you know your customers well, you cannot respond fully to them. No matter how good you think your service is, the customer must perceive the quality.

It's seems that many parents have a tough passage through the child care system. The challenge is to make the system parent-friendly while providing quality care for the children. Satisfied customers can become your best advocates. They can influence public opinion and help you lobby for better funding and resourcing.

Poor value for money

Parents with a child at a community-run pre-school and another at a private school calculated that it cost more to send their child to the pre-school. Father, Joe Pearson questioned the disparity " The pre-school is a three room house surrounded by a small yard. The minimal facilities are upgraded by parent working bees. Staff (except for the director) are kindly but unqualified. By contrast, the nearby private school has many classrooms, a hall, a wide range of sports, music, computer and language facilities and all the staff are graduates. All this for less than pre-school".

Choice calculated that the average cost of full-time child care per week is $120. If a child has out-of-home care from the baby stage to when he/she starts school parents will have paid $30,000.

Despite the high cost of child care, parents say that the services are not fulfilling their needs. Parents who presently struggle to order their lives around child care hours want greater flexibility. Sole parents, part-time workers, students and shift-workers, who represent an increasing proportion of Australians, cannot cope with a system that is out of tune with contemporary families.

Linda Vining is the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools. She conducts a series of school seminars on Marketing The Modern School. Phone (02) 9683 6725.

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