Of all the problems facing parents, making sure our children have access to the highest quality childcare is one of the biggest. As studio members at Near Now — an arts, design, and innovation studio based at Broadway in Nottingham — we have been working with #RadicalChildcare founder Amy Martin to research and prototype possible alternatives to current childcare provision. Our aim: re-imagine childcare for the 21st century through new approaches built on trust, flexibility, and shared resources. We know that the current childcare system is broken. The UK is second only to Switzerland in terms of cost, with many parents complaining that the inflexibility of mainstream provision is out of step with their working patterns.
At the same time, mainstream childcare providers are warning that they cannot meet the 30 hours of free childcare pledged by the government and state that low pay is driving experience and talent from the sector.
With more parents freelancing and running micro-businesses than ever before, there needs to be an alternative solution that makes it easy for parents to consider working together to organise and co-design childcare arrangements.
Good quality childcare that works for parents and children — not just providers — leads to greater diversity and inclusion in wider society. Parents are, at present, undervalued by current mainstream childcare providers, which rely on transactional relationships. Our research indicates that many parents would like to be more involved in childcare and, in doing so, learn new skills from peers, whilst being able to work on the flexible basis so often demanded of freelancers.
Our re-imagined childcare system would see a reduction in costs, an improvement in quality of care, and better working conditions for childcare professionals. We spent the best part of last year thinking about what innovations and interventions could achieve those three goals.
A Co-operative Solution
Working together as a team from different backgrounds — policy, the creative sector, product, and service design, respectively — we have designed a prototype operating model and digital service called Kidoop. The service, envisioned as a web app, would allow parents to group together to form a childcare co-operative, in which all members commit time and resources to care for the memberships' children, working with highly qualified childcare professionals in a non-domestic setting.
Kidoop's co-operative model relies on the active involvement of parents as playworkers, in exchange for a full or partial discount on childcare costs. Many parents feel that the nature of childcare is closed and transactional: They drop their child off at the beginning of the day and see them at the end, in exchange for a hefty fee. By being part of a group of peers raising children, we think that parents can bring their skills and knowledge to a childcare setting and, in turn, learn new skills and gain insight into children's learning and development.
By building a model used by parents, which ensures that care arrangements meet minimum legislative requirements (such as the ratio of children to staff, floor space, and mixture of qualified [childcare] and non-qualified staff [parents acting as playworkers]), we can develop a childcare system that we would actually want, rather than stretching resources already at breaking point.
The New Economics Foundation has already been doing a lot of work in this area, and proposes that co-operative childcare could form part of the solution. In July 2016, NESTA published a report that stresses the importance of co-produced childcare through the involvement of parents.
Many of these arrangements, such as babysitting circles, already existed on a semi-formal basis before anyone thought of them as part of any kind of design project. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention (nicely name-checked in NESTA's 2014 Mothers of Innovation report). There are only a handful of childcare co-ops in the UK — limited to the affluent and socially mobile areas of Hackney, Stoke Newington, and Brixton in London. However, childcare co-ops are commonplace in Canada and New Zealand. We think this is as much down to culture and prevailing conditions (work-life balance and shorter commuting distances) as the safeguarding and education frameworks necessary to make this model viable.
Policy and Design
Getting an initiative like Kidoop off the ground requires careful navigation of the red tape and policy currently in place.
Rarely do policymakers think about how people use policy — how it feels, and how it really interacts with other aspects of their life. Design is different. By thinking about people first, it becomes possible to present potential outcomes by showing, and even testing, how much more effective different policy scenarios might be.
No policy area is more divisive — and perhaps risk averse — than that of childcare and safeguarding. There are great things about the principles of childcare legislation — that all children receive the same, or at least similar standards of care; that any legal childcare arrangement has safeguarding embedded; and that the often unpaid labour of childcare is tracked, in some way, by government. But these principles often don't work in reality, and adversely affect parents who try to balance childcare with other commitments. In 2009, two policewomen were fined by Ofsted for arranging a reciprocal childcare agreement — each working half the week, and then taking care of their own and the other's children for the other half. As neither were registered childminders, this arrangement was deemed to be breaking the law. Although the law has since been changed to allow reciprocal childcare between unregistered friends, such as in this incident, there is still a great deal of confusion about what is permitted when it comes to informal childcare and what is not. There is no shortage of posts on Mumsnet from parents stating that their childcare arrangements routinely break the law — but they have no real choice but to do so.
Starting with Minimum Viable Childcare and Building What We Really Want
No one really wants the minimum viable childcare model. We want children to thrive and flourish through creative play, learning from their peers, and from the skills and experience of other parents, not just their own.
Our initial user testing indicated that parents were acutely aware of childcare regulations and legislation, and that they were put off by the threat of inspections from Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services, and Skills) who regulate services that care for children and young people. By building a model that parents can use to meet Ofsted criteria, we think that groups could be empowered to see what can be possible. By introducing variables and enriching factors, they could even exceed the minimum requirements — different settings, toys, or playworkers could push them above and beyond the learning and development goals set out in the Early Years Framework, the statutory standards that all childcare providers must meet for the development and care of children under five years old.
Within minimum viable childcare, there are various criteria to fulfil and an order in which to meet them. We designed a model for forming a childcare co-operative that breaks down the process into clear requirements, tasks, and themed sections: Before You Start, Initial Setup, Legalities, Location, Staff, Training, and Safeguarding.
Forming a Co-op
Setting up as a co-operative is not straightforward, even with assistance from platforms such as Co-operatives UK's excellent One Click Co-op. Satisfying legal requirements, alone, is not enough to make this model really work — through our research and development, we know that it is important to agree on founding principles and aspirations for children's learning in addition to the necessary articles of association. From the initial idea to the first day of operation, we estimate that establishing a childcare co-op will take around a year.
In order for co-operative childcare to really work as a desirable and pragmatic model, we would need to convince parents early on that it is a viable alternative. Existing National Childbirth Trust (NCT) groups could be used as a potential channel, but given the existing barriers to entry (around £200 registration fee for NCT alone), this makes the often cliquey and closed nature of childcare even harder to puncture.
Ofsted registration takes several months and involves a visit from an inspector before providers using non-domestic settings can start running. However, in order to register as a childcare provider, you have to give an indication of where you'll be running the nursery from and how. You also need to give a named person on the application, rather than an association between different parents. Initially, we thought that it would be best to have a childminder NVQ Level 3 as the named person, as they would be on the premises for most of the time during operational hours in order to achieve the standards needed for childcare to be viable. However, being a named childcare provider is a little like being a pub landlord : Whilst responsible for the overall operation of the pub, they do not necessarily have to be an expert in the day-to-day running of it. So we now think it makes more sense to indicate a Director on the registration and then employ a Level 3 Childminder who, whilst still being on site for the majority of operational hours, would be able to run the more practical aspects of the business — risk assessments for children and adults, ensuring health and safety is appropriate, and so on.
Finding a Location
We think that the sourcing of a location — that would meet the requirements of a kitchen, separate toilets for children and adults, and so on — might be the most difficult hurdle (and because it requires more common sense than the other conditions that need to be fulfilled). Therefore, we've left this as dummy content to probe further in a later version of the Kidoop prototype.
Grey Areas as Opportunities
There is still a lot open to interpretation. No one wants to cut corners when it comes to creating safe, happy, and enabling experiences of childcare, but with experience comes common practice that forms cultural norms and habits.
For example, the Early Years Framework states that childcare providers must feed those that they care for — this means that there should be a kitchen on site, that staff preparing food should have a basic food hygiene certificate, and that providers be able to report back to parents what their child has eaten during the course of the session. However, by speaking to childcare providers, we've found out that a lot of childminders ask for parents to drop their child off together with a packed lunch. This means that childcare settings (especially if temporary) do not necessarily need access to a kitchen, staff do not require food safety training, and that parents and carers already know what their child has eaten that day.
This circumvention of the rules, whilst putting the welfare of children first, is what we learn through experience — experience that no new parents have. We don't want to offer cut-price childcare. We want to communicate nuggets of learned wisdom like this through our tool — to remove the obstructions from setting up childcare with friends, take confidence in its viability, and to empower more parents to take part.
At this stage, Kidoop is just a prototype, but we hope that a resource like it might help to make parent childcare co-operatives a feasible alternative here in the UK: one that is more flexible, affordable, and rooted in community, allowing children, parents, and communities to thrive. To view a video demo of the Kidoop service, head NearNow.org.
The Re-imagining Childcare project and Kidoop prototype form part of a wider project founded by Amy Martin and based at Impact Hub Birmingham called #RadicalChildcare, an initiative to explore, imagine, and invest in bold new possibilities for the future of childcare. The Near Now Studio is part of a pilot to support innovation across arts and technology, sponsored by Arts Council England and Innovate UK.
This article is part of STIR magazine's winter 2017 issue on Solidarity Economics. It was co-produced with the team at the Institute for Solidarity Economics and explores how the social economy intersects with the commons and civic society.