Flexible child care and Australian parents' work and care decision-making

Research Report No. 37 – November 2016

Executive summary

It is commonly stated that there is a need for flexible child care to be available to parents especially for those who work variable or non-standard hours, given the 24/7 nature of today's labour market. But Australian and international research shows that parents' decision-making about work and child care is complex and varied. This research report explores how parents make decisions about work and care, especially when faced with shift work or inflexible job conditions.

We ask here, what flexible child care arrangements are families seeking, and are those arrangements available? We further ask what are the barriers to families accessing different models of flexible care? This research draws upon interviews with Australian parents, with many of them working as police or nurses and so directly able to discuss how their child care needs are met in a context of working variable or non-standard hours. This interview data is examined along with some national survey data, and also survey data from parents of children engaged with specific school-aged care services, to include the perspectives of other Australian families.

There were many different stories that emerged from this research. In some families, parents had adapted their work situation to fit the care they had available to them. This included changing work hours to part-time, moving jobs to one that did not involve variable shifts, or even taking a period of time out of employment. Such adjustments were necessary for some parents who knew that they could not find a care solution to otherwise match their work arrangements. Others made adjustments such as these as they wished to prioritise caring for children, at least for a time. Understanding this proved critical to understanding parents' needs for flexible care, which were actually already met within many families when we spoke with them because of the work adjustments that had been made.

It was also important to understand that many parents valued the ways they could meet their care needs informally, either by arranging their work schedules to cover care needs themselves or calling on the help of extended family, such as grandparents. While such options were not always easy, and not available to all families, informal care was especially valued at “non-standard” times, such as early mornings, overnight or even on weekends. Informal care was often used to supplement formal care options.

Formal care options were used by many families, and centre-based care was seen as particularly desirable for children approaching school age, because of the social and learning opportunities it gave those children. The downside of this type of care was that it usually lacked flexibility, such that parents were not able to vary their times to match varying rosters, and some parents had difficulties with the opening hours their service offered. Shift-working families would nevertheless use centre-based care, often with informal care or their own juggling of work schedules. Family Day Care provided another type of formal care, which could be more flexible than centre-based care and could operate at non-standard hours. While national statistics show this form of care is less often used than centre-based care, the parents in this study who used it, and who had access to flexible care as a result, were very positive about this as a solution to their care needs. Family Day Care was not available to everyone and, indeed, was not always offered with a high degree of flexibility, as educators are able to determine whether they wish to provide overnight or varying hours of care.

With much diversity in terms of need among parents, of central importance was the availability of a range of child care options, so they can choose the care that best suits their needs at a particular time. Parents generally did not feel this to be the case at present and, in particular, had difficulties accessing formal care options that could match varying rosters or be called upon for short periods of care when work hours did not quite align with their available (parental or non-parental) care arrangements.

In terms of the barriers, the lack of availability of care at the times that parents needed it was the greatest barrier. Some parents sought better flexibility in the workplace, as a means of being able to better address their work and care responsibilities.

Beyond this, workplace and family characteristics meant different parents had more or less success in meeting their flexible care needs. Family factors that proved challenging included having a larger family, and having children of both school age and under-school age, whose child care services might have different operating hours. Living away from extended family, or living in areas with more limited care options such as in regional areas also proved challenging for some.

Overall, many parents expressed a wish for improved access to flexible child care, especially for care to match variable shifts and non-standard work hours. However, there remained a lack of certainty about the degree to which formal care options would be taken up by parents who have already found solutions to their care needs through informal care or adjusting their own work patterns. Such solutions were often preferred over formal care by parents, despite being challenging to negotiate or requiring some compromises to incomes, family time or careers.

This research highlights that decision-making about child care is not straightforward but varied. Future development of child care policy, especially that which attends to care at non-standard hours, needs to be done with consideration of the ways in which parents make decisions about work and care, and the value placed on non-formal care solutions as well as that placed on formal care.