Friday, October 7, 2011

Cost of Childcare in London - what are your options?

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Photo by o5com

A friend back home was lamenting to me about the high childcare costs back home. "You wouldn't believe how much we are forking out for the kiddo," he muttered. I looked up at him in anticipation. "A whopping $1000 (£500) per month!" I looked at him, dumbfounded but not in a way he expected.

I have always maintained that costs of living in London isn't as expensive as most would expect (read London can be affordable too). Over the years, Singapore has caught up and even surpassed London in terms of living costs. That said, childcare is definitely one area that London parents can still spend a fortune on. If cost of accommodation in London can take up to a third of the household take home pay, childcare can easily take up another third. That is one serious consideration when deciding on relocating to London.

Compare to Singapore where majority of young children are taken care by domestic maids who are often more preoccupied with household chores (some children's primary caregivers are their parents or grandparents who depended heavily on domestic maids), London definitely offers far more options but not without a price. Here are the five most common childcare options that Londoners depend on.

1. Own parents

When it comes to the crunch, there is rarely anyone else that you trust more than your own parents. Having your parents living just down the street means that you could just drop off your children at their place before heading to work and collect them when you return. With most Londoners' parents living quite a distance away, this is a luxury that many cannot afford.

While your parents have a vested interest in your children, you can expect to relive your childhood all over again with seemingly arcane child rearing methods are imposed onto you. Expect to have a say in bringing up your children? Forget it. You should be thankful if you do not receive a dressing down in front of your children. Cost wise? Almost negligible compared to the rest of the options. It might be worth it after all.

Cost: next to negligible, not officially anyway

2. Nursery

If you believe that your child should learn to interact with other kids, nursery would be your cup of tea. With a number of pairs of eyes around, there is ample checks and balances. Nurseries are known for setting routines, which some toddlers thrived in. Expect written reports and frequent phone calls about playground shoving incidents and insect bites. Most nurseries offer one staff to three children (1:3) ratio for the youngest children. To put parents at ease, each child would be assigned a primary caregiver who is responsible for reporting to the parents whenever necessary. However, with the high staff turnover rate in some nurseries, this don't mean much.

Some argue that children under two are simply too young to interact with the rest. That is true to a certain extent. If you would just pay a visit to the nursery, you would immediately notice that very young children seem to keep to themselves. Also, nurseries are known to be a hotbed for infections. Often, parents would have to take frequent emergency leave to collect their sick children from the nursery as that the nursery's the main quarantine method is to send sick kids home.

Another issue about nurseries is their inflexibility. Collection time must be strictly adhered to with some nurseries imposing fines on parents who are late for even a couple of minutes. Also, there is next to no negotiation on what's being fed to your kid unless he is allergy to some food.

Cost of nursery: £1500 per month and above in central London

3. Child-minders

Child-minders refer those who open up their homes for daycare purposes. Some parents become child-minders themselves as they have young child at home. The number of children per household is limited to a handful. Call it a mini nursery if you will but due to limited resources, the children are rarely bought out for walks if at all.

As child-minders are eligible for government funding, they can afford to charge fees that match nurseries. The benefit of sending your kid to a child-minder is that there's no turnover rate and the household environment means a certain degree of stability for your child. With less children in constant contact, it means less chance of an infection too.

On the flipside, there's absolutely no checks and balances if you are into that sort of thing. And if the child-minder is also looking after her children at the same time, there will certainly conflicts of interests. Finally, unlike nurseries that operate on a no-TV rule, almost anything goes for child-minders.

Cost of child-minder: £4 per hour upwards in Central London

4. Au pair

Au pair is perhaps the closest to the concept of live in domestic help, which is prevalent in parts of Asia. The only difference is that the scope of work is rather strictly defined (mostly restricted to looking after your child) and the work day ends for them at an agreed time (usually around 7pm).

Au pairs are usually in the UK on a student visa (if required at all) to learn English. So if you are looking for your child picking up English early and the au pair is to be her primary caregiver, you might wish to reconsider. As mentioned, you would have to provide both lodgings and meals. Not something that you would prefer if you value your privacy.

However, as you are expected to put her up at your place an in some cases foot part of her English courses fees, you might be able to provide your child one to one care at a reduced sum.

Cost of au pair: around £100 per week excluding boarding and other extra expenses

5. Nanny

If one to one care is of utmost importance and you can afford to fork out a bit more, you should start hunting for a nanny.

Of all the options above, the nanny is easily the most flexible. Other than being the sole carer of your child, they could also help run some light errands. Bringing your child to playgroups, classes that you have signed her up for, walks and even the doctor when she is unwell, a good nanny is like an efficient relative.

As you are likely to go through quite a few candidates to find a suitable nanny, you can get someone whom you are really comfortable with. Some even come with music or acting degrees if you want to give your child a headstart in that direction. Thinking of teaching your kid another language, get someone who speaks that as a first language.

The flip side is of course the costs involved. Expect to pay nanny agencies and taxes (as the nanny is your employee) if you are going through the formal channels. Statutory paid leave as well as paid medical leave is a must as well.

Cost of nanny: £8-£12 per hour in central London before taxes and agency fees (if applicable). Read also the real costs breakdown of hiring a nanny in London.

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Regardless of which option you go for, just be sure to do your homework and visit as many nurseries or interview as many nannies if possible before committing. Ultimately, it's your own child we are talking about, isn't it? As long as your are comfortable with the child carer, your kid should do just fine.

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