Childcare expert Elyssa Campbell-Barr offers her top tips on the challenge of finding the right childcare while you work or study...
If your child has additional needs – whether a physical disability, chronic medical condition, learning difficulties, behavioural issues, communication problems or severe allergies – it might feel particularly daunting.
The process is often trickier for families in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK, as there is currently no legislation requiring national or local government here to ensure sufficient childcare for working parents, and there's significantly less free preschool provision than in Scotland and England. Comparatively low wages, a large rural population, and a traditional reliance on informal care providers (such as grandparents) compound the difficulties.
Here are some tips to help you...
1. If your child has additional needs of any sort, contact your regional Education Authority (EA) as early as possible. Their special educational needs team can give you advice on meeting your child's additional needs, while their early years and childcare team should be able to help you find appropriate early years education and childcare.
2. Consider all the childcare options available to you before making a decision. With centre-based care such as a nursery or out-of-school club, you may have a choice between mainstream and specialist provision. Or you may prefer home-based care, either from a childminder working in their home, or possibly an approved home-childcarer in your own home.
3. Mainstream childcare providers, such as nurseries and childminders, are required by UK law to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to accommodate youngsters with additional needs. What's considered a 'reasonable adjustment' is decided on a case-by-case basis, but examples might include new catering arrangements to accommodate a child with food allergies, access ramps for a child with mobility difficulties, or staff undertaking extra training to support a child with communication difficulties. Your childcarer may be able to get a grant to help them make adjustments.
4. The Family Support website (familysupportni.gov.uk) is an invaluable resource for parents looking for daycare. You can search for all types of registered childcare (including nurseries, childminders and approved home childcarers), as well as family support services, narrowing your results by type, distance from your home, and even experience in dealing with disabled children and those with complex needs.
5. Pre-school children in Northern Ireland – including those with additional needs – should get 475 hours of free early learning and childcare in the year before they start primary school – normally delivered as 2.5 hours each weekday during term time. This could be at a state-funded nursery, private nursery or playgroup.
6. Be prepared to put extra time and effort into the childcare arrangement for your special needs child. Your childcarer will need clear instructions and regular updates, while your son or daughter may need extra support settling in or during times of change.
7. A parliamentary enquiry in 2014 found 86 per cent of UK parents of disabled children paying an above-average rate for childcare, so make sure you are getting all the financial help available to you. Check your entitlement to tax credits, as the amount you receive may be higher if your child is eligible for Disability Living Allowance or is registered blind. Find out whether your employer offers childcare vouchers or if you might qualify for student support with childcare fees. The charity Employers For Childcare can check if you're getting all the financial support you're entitled to – visit employersforchildcare.org or call free on 0800 028 6538.
8. The new UK-wide tax-free childcare scheme, which will be introduced in 2017 and eventually replace childcare vouchers, 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). The scheme will help parents 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 able to join.
9. The childcare situation in Northern Ireland looks set to improve, with an imminent new national childcare strategy promising a dramatic increase in the quantity, quality and flexibility of childcare provision by 2025. Until that happens, be prepared to challenge anything you're not happy with, raising any concerns with the care provider in the first instance, and with your Education Authority if you're still not happy.
10. Finding the right childcare for your child may take extra time, effort and determination, but it will benefit the whole family. Information and advice are available from Childcare Partnerships (childcarepartnerships.ni.org), the Special Educational Needs Advice Centre (senac.co.uk), the Northern Ireland Childminding Association (nicma.org) and NI Direct (nidirect.gov.uk/articles/childcare-child-disabilities).
Many thanks to Contact a Family, the charity for families with disabled children, for their help with this article. For further advice and support visit cafamily.org.uk or call their free helpline on 0808 808 3555.
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 bookshops and online for £9.99. www.choosing-childcare.co.uk