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For four out of 10 families the cost of childcare is on par with a mortgage, but does it pay to be a childminder?

As a major charity highlights the high cost of having your child looked after in Northern Ireland, we hear from one group of dedicated women about the rewards and challenges of their careers

This is the busiest time of the year for NICMA — the Childminding Association as schools return and parents scramble for childcare places. With the recession and inflation continuing to bite, the cost of childcare is a big worry for many parents.

According to a study by Save the Children published this week families are getting into debt because of the cost of childcare with 40% of poorest paid parents considering leaving work because they cannot afford to have someone look after their |children.

Parents spend almost a third of their incomes on childcare in the UK — more than anywhere else in the world, according to a study. For four out of 10 families the cost of childcare is on a par with mortgage or rent payments, the study showed.

But, NICMA’s Director, Bridget Nodder (left), says childminders face cost pressures too.

“There is no doubt that the cost of childcare can come as a big shock to many parents.

“A recent Employers for Childcare survey showed that the average cost of a full-time childminding place is £153 — so, if you have two very young children who need full-time childcare, that’s just over £300 a week.

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“But it’s easy to see that figure purely as an annoying drain on your purse, rather than what it should really represent — which is a worthwhile investment in your child’s development.

“Registered childminders do not simply ‘mind the kids’ — they make a valuable contribution to a child’s development by offering stimulating and enriching |activities.

“Good quality childminding is hard work — it requires planning and preparation, and considerable skill. It also involves a significant outlay on toys, equipment, food, petrol and energy bills.

“Many of our members are themselves parents who are juggling both their household and business budgets on very modest incomes. So they know very well the financial challenges working parents are facing at the moment.

“Our main concern right now is that some parents are being tempted to use illegal, unregistered childminders who can undercut registered childcarers on cost.

“We would urge parents not to go down that route.

“The main reason unregistered childminders are cheaper is because registered childminders face strict limits on the number of children they can look after — limits which are there for the safety and welfare of those children,” she adds.

“Moreover, unregistered childminders don’t have insurance and haven’t been inspected — so we would always urge parents not to put their children’s well-being at risk by using an illegal childcarer.

“The use of unregistered childminders also precludes parents from being able to access the financial help which is available to help parents meet the cost of childcare.

“Not all parents realise that the government provides tax credits to many working parents specifically to help pay childcare costs. Many employers also offer childcare vouchers.

“But, in both cases, you’ll only be eligible if you use a registered childcare provider.

“We would urge parents to make use of the help which is available and to remember that many childminders face real financial pressures too.”

‘We live in fear that the government will cut our tax credits’

Kelly Molloy (32) is a childminder in the Oldpark Road area of north Belfast. A single parent, she has two children of her own, Chloé (6) and Charlie (4), and looks after four other children. She says:

I was working in a building society and decided on childminding as a career change. While it’s proved every bit as rewarding as I’d hoped, I wasn’t prepared for the outgoings — the extra food, |the price of diesel, the higher car and home contents insurance I had to pay The list goes on and on!

One of the biggest items for me is the weekly food shop. I order my childminding food on the internet and use a comparison site to get the best supermarket price, but it still costs about £85 a week – that’s about £20 more than this time last year.

I’m not keen on ready-made food, so I do buy quite a lot of fresh food.

I’ll make a pot of soup or stew for the children’s lunch the night before if we’re going to be staying in.

I get about £10,000 a year in tax credits to supplement my £3,500 profit.

In our area, lots of childminders and parents are on low incomes and rely on tax credits.

I have to say we all live in fear that the government will reduce them. That would push a lot of childminders and parents here out of work.

I don’t mind the fact I don’t earn a great deal because I get enormous enjoyment out of what I do.

It’s a real privilege to be able to spend time watching my own children grow and contributing to the development of the children I look after.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

‘My biggest expenditure has probably been on toys’

Lana Stewart (39) lives in the Newtownbreda area of Belfast with husband, Mark, a telesales supervisor and children, Jack (13), Tom (10) and Molly (5). Lana looks after six children, aged between 9 months and 9 years. She says:

I was earning a good salary in a senior clerical post in a hospital. But I hated the way that my life was compartmentalised between work and the family. So I decided to try childminding because it would allow me to focus on my family, while also providing both an income and a satisfying career.

The biggest unexpected expenditure for me has probably been on toys. I assumed we’d be able to use my own children’s toys, but they don’t last long when there are |other children in the house all the time.

I also work for five hours every Saturday in a GP’s practice and that money pays for our heating oil. Our one real treat is an annual family holiday abroad — we always try to save up for that.

But you don’t go into childminding to make big money. It’s a hard, hard job but it’s honestly just so rewarding. When a child gives you a smile and has a real hearty laugh with you, you really can’t beat that experience.”

‘As far as I’m concerned it’s not primarily about the money’

Child’s play: Gail Trainor with Christopher Jones (3) and Rebecca |McDonnell (3) making a splash in the gardenGail Trainor (38) is a childminder in the Saintfield Road area of south Belfast. Her husband, Tommy works in IT. They have two children, Conor (6) and Niamh (5). Gail looks after 6 other children, aged between 9 months and 6 years. She says:

I worked in a bank but, once I had my children, I knew I wanted to be at home with them and childminding provided a way of doing that. I have to admit I was horrified when I began to realise the expense involved though!

For example, I had a new baby start with me recently and I spent £400 on the equipment I needed for him — a double buggy and an additional car seat, high chair and travel cot. Unfortunately, I had given away all of my own children’s baby stuff.

I also like to buy plenty of toys and equipment — you have to buy for different age groups, and you have to have enough variety so that the children aren’t going to get bored.

And then there’s all the day-to-day stuff — you wouldn’t believe how many toilet rolls you use when you look after six kids!

But I don’t begrudge the expenditure at all. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not primarily about the money.

To see the children’s delighted wee faces when they discover something new or learn something — you can’t put a price on that.”

For more information on choosing a childminder and on getting help with childcare costs, just call NICMA on 0871 200 2063 or go to the NICMA website at www.nicma.org .

Cutting the cost of childcare

  • There are two sources of help with meeting the cost of childcare — tax credits and childcare vouchers. To be eligible for either, you must be using a registered childcare provider.
  • Many families are eligible for the childcare element of Working Tax Credit which can cover up to 70% of your childcare costs per week up to a set limit — even families earning up to around £62,000 a year can get some tax credit help. Phone HMRC on 0845 300 3900 or visit its website at: www.hmrc.gov.uk.
  • Your employer may provide childcare vouchers which can be used to offset the cost of childcare. You can’t claim tax credits for any childcare costs which are paid for by your employer, either through vouchers or direct.
  • The HMRC website has a calculator to help you decide whether you would be better off taking childcare vouchers or not, if you are also receiving tax credits.
  • More information on tax credits and childcare vouchers is available at: www.direct.gov.uk

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