Choosing the right childcare can be challenging for any family. When your child has additional needs – whether a physical impairment, learning disabilities, behavioural issues, communication needs or severe allergies – it can be particularly difficult.
Not only do you need to find a carer who can accommodate your child’s needs in an environment that’s safe and suitable, but you may also be juggling your little one’s medical appointments and specialist support, and perhaps trying to meet the needs of siblings too – and all while devoting sufficient attention to your work or studies, and your own health and wellbeing.
It’s little wonder that many parents find the childcare conundrum too stressful and time-consuming, and instead decide to give up or cut down on work to care for their disabled child themselves. In 2014, a parliamentary enquiry revealed that in 72 per cent of families with a disabled child, one or both parents had left their jobs or reduced their hours because of childcare difficulties.
Though this may relieve the pressure in the short term, it can also place families in a poverty trap. In 2011, the Children’s Society found that about a third of UK children were living in poverty, but for disabled children the figure was significantly higher at 40 per cent. And the latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that child poverty is on the rise.
When parents have access to high quality childcare that’s both affordable and reliable, and as a result have the option to pursue a career or study, they benefit financially, socially and psychologically – which in turn benefits their children. This is true for families of disabled children just as much as any other family.
Recent years have brought some encouraging developments – in England at least. Thanks to the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) reforms of 2014, every English local authority must now have a ‘local offer’ website, explaining the services and support available to local disabled people – and this should include details of childcare provision.
All 2 year olds in England who have an Education, Health and Care plan or Statement, or for whom someone claims Disability Living Allowance, are also now entitled to 15 hours of free preschool education each week during term-time from the term after their second birthday. This is known as FEET (Free Early Education for Two-year-olds), and to access it parents need to find a nursery, preschool, Sure Start Centre or registered childminder who offers FEET places. They will apply for the funding on the child’s behalf, so there’s minimal form-filling and no need to claim the money. You don’t need to be a working or studying for your disabled child to get a FEET place.
The Equality Act 2010 has improved disabled youngsters’ access to childcare across England, Scotland and Wales. Childcare providers are now required by law to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their service and premises to accommodate children (and parents) with SEND. ‘Reasonable adjustments’ include physical changes, extra training, additional staff, alternative catering arrangements, new equipment, alternative activities, a restructured timetable, or simply altering the layout of the premises.
The new UK-wide tax-free childcare scheme, to be introduced in 2017, will cover 20 per cent of a maximum childcare cost of £20,000 a year for disabled children aged up to 17 (compared with £10,000 for non-disabled children aged up to 12). This will help most families who don’t qualify for tax credits or Universal Credit. All working parents with an annual salary below £100,000, including those who are self-employed or contract workers, will be eligible to join the scheme.
Making the right choice
As with any child, when thinking about childcare for a youngster with SEND it’s important to consider all the options before making a decision. Make contact with the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) at your local authority as early as possible to get advice and information about the different choices available in your area. They should also be able to tell you about any financial support you might be entitled to.
Many parents automatically think of centre-based childcare, such as a nursery, pre-school, or an out-of-school club for older children. Depending on your child’s needs, a mainstream childcare centre might be the best option (with ‘reasonable adjustments’ if necessary), or you might feel that specialist provision, tailored to the needs of SEND children, would be more appropriate.
Don’t forget that you also have the option of home-based childcare. For many babies and children – for example those with communication or hearing difficulties, complex dietary requirements, severe allergies or anxiety disorders – the small-group care provided in the home of a registered childminder is ideal.
For a child with particularly complex needs, your local authority may be able to help you find an approved home-childminder who will look after your little one in your own home. Or if you would prefer (and can afford) a private nanny, there are agencies that specialise in placing nannies who have training and/or experience in caring for children with SEND. Snap Childcare – www.snapchildcare.co.uk – is perhaps the best known.
The harsh reality
Despite all the support on offer and legal protections in place, much more still needs to be done to ensure that children with SEND and their families can access suitable, affordable childcare. Shockingly, the Family and Childcare Trust’s latest annual survey of childcare costs found that just 15 per cent of English local authorities currently have enough childcare for disabled children, compared to 21 per cent in 2015. Contact a Family has calculated that childcare expenditure can be eight times higher for families of SEND children.
Finding the right childcare for a child with additional needs can be a battle, but it’s a battle worth fighting. The following organisations are useful sources of information and support:
- Capability Scotland: www.capability-scotland.org.uk
- Childcare Partnerships: www.childcarepartnerships-ni.org
- Contact a Family: www.cafamily.org.uk
- Council for Disabled Children: www.councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk
- Family and Childcare Trust: www.familyandchildcaretrust.org/childcare
- Independent Advice and Support Services network: www.iassnetwork.org.uk
- National Network of Parent Carer Forums: www.nnpcf.org.uk
- Northern Ireland Special Educational Needs Advice Centre: www.senac.co.uk
- Snap Cymru: www.snapcymru.org
Elyssa Campbell-Barr is the author of Choosing Childcare: Nurseries, Childminders, Nannies, Au Pairs, Family, the UK’s most comprehensive, impartial and up-to-date guide to childcare, which includes a chapter on ‘Childcare for children with additional needs’. Published by Cross Publishing, Choosing Childcare is available from all good bookshops and online for £9.99.
Elyssa has worked in the worlds of childcare and education for over 15 years, editing magazines for the National Childminding Association and National Union of Teachers and writing for organisations including Ofsted, Sure Start, Nursery World, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (Pacey), the Pre-school Learning Alliance and NetMums. As the working mother of a young daughter and son, she has recent and relevant experience of the book’s topics.