Re-imagining Childcare - What We've Learnt

Investigating a minimum viable childcare model

Posted on 22nd November 2016

Written by Naomi Turner

Over the last year, we have been supporting our Near Now Studio members to research and develop ambitious new projects that create meaning and value for people’s everyday lives.

As the outcomes of each project emerge from the Studio, we’re asking the cohort to share stories of how their ideas have progressed and their plans for the future.

Studio members Amy Martin, Naomi Turner and Marta Monge have been working on re-imagining childcare for the 21st century, through new approaches built on trust, flexibility and shared resources.

Here’s the second part of their story.

Mending broken systems

In the Near Now Studio, we've spoken a lot about the role designers can play in tackling the 'wicked problems' that face society and our everyday lives.

We are addressing one of those problems by building a prototype platform to demonstrate, test and build minimum viable childcare models. We want to empower parents to establish co-designed childcare groups with friends and peers.

We believe that good quality childcare that works for parents and children — not just providers — leads to a richer quality of conversation in work and outside of it. 

The risk of not facilitating good childcare is pretty devastating. A decline in diversity of gender is damaging across all professions, notwithstanding the removal of mothers from how the economy thinks we add value — through paid, and unpaid (emotional) labour.

The Co-operative Model relies on the active involvement of parents as play workers, 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.

Image Credit: Amy Rozel Martin / Impact Hub Birmingham

Image Credit: Amy Rozel Martin / Impact Hub Birmingham

The New Economics Foundation have been doing a lot of work in this area, and propose that Co-operative Childcare could form part of the solution. In July 2016, NESTA published a report that stresses the importance of the co-production of childcare through the involvement of parents.

Many of these arrangements, such as babysitting circles, already exist 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 — unsurprisingly 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 & Design

Policy is often communicated in a way that is confusing and obfuscating, but this was not the original intent.

This is due to the accretive nature of policy — open to tweaks and additions or subtractions, with most amendments sparking lengthy discourse — in favour or protest — from political parties, MPs and Peers, policy wonks and industry bodies of all shapes and sizes. 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 built in; 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). Because 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 OFSTED inspections. By building a model which parents can use to meet OFSTED criteria, we think that groups could be empowered to see what can be possible and far exceed it by introducing variables and enriching factors, to that minimum— different settings, toys or playworkers, going beyond the learning and development goals set out in the Early Years Framework.

Within minimum viable childcare, there are various criteria to fulfill, and an order in which to meet them. We’ve come up with an imperfect model, shown below, made during a Studio production sprint. You’ll see that although we’ve tried to break it down into sections, in reality there is a lot of overlap between these different stages in terms of user experience.

A model for minimum viable childcare

A model for minimum viable childcare

Forming a Co-op

Setting up as a Co-operative is not straightforward, even with assistance from sites such as the 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 childrens’ learning in addition to the necessary articles of association.

From the initial idea to the first day of operation, we estimate that establishing a 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. We could use existing NCT groups 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

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 being a 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.

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.

Parts of this story were first published on Medium by Naomi Turner.

In the next part of our story, we'll talk about how we used our research and model prototype to start designing a platform for parents and childminders to learn more about Parent Childcare Co-operatives and how to set one up.

Stories from the Studio

Find out more about the projects developed through the Near Now Studio over on the Stories page.


Naomi Turner