Choosing a childcare provider: Understanding the journey
Choosing formal childcare is one of the first big decisions a parent will make for their child. Every child in England who is aged three or four is now entitled to 1,140 hours of free early education or childcare across the year. From September 2017, many working parents of 3 to 4-year-olds in England will be eligible for 30 hours of free childcare per week - rather than the current 15 hours - for 38 weeks of the year (to reflect school term time). With the government increasing free childcare for parents, Which? has looked at parents’ experiences of choosing a childcare provider.
This article draws on two pieces of Which? Research:
Which? conducted a representative survey of 3,600 UK adults in May 2017, asking consumers about their experiences of a range of public services including childcare.
Childcare is a market where there is a lot of choice but consumers can find it a difficult market to navigate. Just eight per cent of users who responded to our May 2017 survey felt they did not have any choice when selecting a childcare provider. However, parents taking part in the qualitative interviews told us that incomplete, disparate and varying quality of information about providers could be overwhelming and that they were surprised by unexpected costs and long waiting lists.
Parents are generally happy with the quality of services they receive, but the high costs mean not all feel they are getting value for money. In our May 2017 survey, 82 per cent of childcare users said that they were satisfied with the service they were receiving. However, childcare scored less well on cost, with less than two thirds (61%) agreeing that their service offered value for money.
What are parents looking for?
Parents want a safe, flexible service. Safety is particularly important to parents when choosing a childcare provider; if the provider does not offer a safe environment (including staff who parents are confident will ensure the safety of their child) then parents will not look any further at that provider. Parents also said that they want a provider where their child will be happy and which offers:
• Hours which fit in with their needs (including what they want for their child and how conveniently the hours fit into their day, e.g. pick-up and drop-off times)
• A safe, nurturing and structured environment
• Care which facilitates development
• An affordable service.
While we have not directly measured affordability of childcare, evidence suggests that a sizeable proportion of parents do not feel they are getting good value for what they are paying. Our May 2017 poll suggests shows that childcare services score highly on aspects such as geographical convenience and professionalism of staff, but scored least well on cost, with less than two thirds (61%) agreeing that their service offered value for money.
Parents’ considerations of what paid formal childcare can add to their child’s development differ by their child’s age. Parents often focus on the care and development they feel the child will receive, according to the age of the child:
• Parents of children aged two or under tend to see the main function of childcare as ‘care’, and look for providers who can replicate the kind of care the child would receive at home.
• Parents of children aged three or four tend to see the main function of childcare as ‘development’ and also place emphasis on finding a provider who can provide activities and environments unavailable at home, either because the parents do not have the skills or facilities themselves, or because of the nature of the environment that a nursery offers (e.g. children for the child to socialise with). This finding is reinforced by existing academic research .
What did they experience during their search?
Parents told us it is time consuming to pull together the information they need to identify potential services. While our survey found that 85 per cent of people describe the information provided to help them choose a childcare service either “completely sufficient” or “fairly sufficient”, our qualitative research suggests it is not simple to collate. We found that some parents are frustrated with the disparate nature of childcare information. For example, they told us that this information was not fully available on the provider websites; they described difficulty finding information such as costs, opening times and availability.
The Family Information Service (FIS) is a statutory function of Local Authorities set up under the Childcare Act (2006)  to provide information and to parents on childcare and early years services in their area. However, qualitative research by Which? suggests that there is inconsistency in the standard of information provided by these services; it was described as clear and comprehensive by some, but out of date and incomplete by others.
Parents who are researching and making decisions about childcare are undertaking a process in which they are emotionally invested, but without a great deal of certainty about their decision. For first-time parents particularly, who do not have previous experience to draw on, the range of providers and the language used is often unfamiliar and can make the overall process feel quite daunting.
Parents also gather information face-to-face, through visiting multiple nurseries and drawing on the experience of other parents. In our qualitative research, parents said they evaluated information they had collected based on location, costs, opening hours and the perceived quality of care, and then visited a selection that met their criteria. Some parents then made a decision as soon as they visited a provider that they were happy with. Others were more cautious, making sure that they compared a number of places on all the factors they saw as important. The exact number of nurseries visited varied: most saw three or four, though some visited considerably more – up to eleven.
The huge range of information about childcare available for parents, of varying quality, can come as a shock to parents and feel overwhelming. This, combined with the emotional investment, means as well as visiting the services, parents often seek reassurance from the experience of others.
It can be hard to tell how flexible providers will be with changing the timetable. Whilst parents looked for childcare which fitted in with their needs, this was rarely achieved in practice. Our survey found that 51 per cent of respondents felt there was only “a little choice” in available times for the children to go and 11 per cent felt there was “no choice at all”. In our qualitative research parents told us that they often had to fit around the offered hours, using wrap-around childcare or changing their own working patterns in order to find childcare which they wanted. Parents told us that they generally only found out about flexibility when they tried to change sessions and in some cases, this led to problems. Flexibility regarding swapping sessions is not something that parents remembered being promoted, even when the nursery was flexible. This would be useful information for parents when choosing childcare providers, as they value flexibility highly.
Once a decision is made, waiting lists for places can be long. A number of parents stressed that they would have started the search earlier if they had realised how long waiting lists could be. Some parents only became aware of problems of availability and waiting lists late in the process of choosing a service.
There can be unexpected costs after the application has been made. Once a decision has been made, parents go through an application process. A number of parents told us that this was the point that they came across unexpected costs, such as deposits and registration fees. Others found they were expected to pay for things they had not expected to pay for, for example still having to pay on bank holidays, even though the nursery was not open.
The increase of free childcare for working parents is a step in the right direction for alleviating cost issues for some parents when using the childcare sector. However, research by Which? has identified a number of areas which could be improved to make the process of choosing a childcare provider easier.
The parents Which? spoke to had a wide variety of factors they needed to know about in order to make an informed decision about what formal childcare service to choose. Some found the available information overwhelming and disparate. The overall process of choosing a childcare provider can be long-winded and daunting, with key information, such as waiting lists and additional costs, only uncovered late in the process.
Parents told us that clear, comparable information in one place would make the process of choosing a service easier. As well as key information about safety and quality of facilities, they also need to know about flexibility of hours upfront and clear pricing.
Want to know more?
 15 telephone interviews with parents currently looking for a nursery or childminder in June 2015, and an online forum was conducted with 37 parents currently using a nursery or a childminder between 8th and 17th July 2015.