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Fields of Gold – The Secret Business of Childcare Waitlists

Fields of Gold – The Secret Business of Childcare Waitlists

There is a battle going on in the Inner West, and it has nothing to do with the housing market. It is all about securing a revered and much demanded childcare spot. As chocolate is an antidote to a breakup, so is childcare an antidote to a mother’s sanity.

Childcare is an opportunity for both us and our children to make friendships, improve our social connections and learn new skills. Unfortunately, securing our darlings a day in these havens, (that come with organic cooked food and yoga classes) is complicated battle. A battle that is fought on a field covered in gold.

My first encounter with the childcare process came under a cloud of intense stress and worry, and made me want to instantly give up. When our first little darling was born, we were living in Balmain, heartland of no chance places. I got scared hearing the stories from all the lovely, organised women in my mother’s group who had already put their names down at half a dozen centres before their child was born. When I heard these stories, mine was already six months old, so, obviously,  my next step was…to do nothing. I could see I didn’t have a shot, and was concerned about the financial sense of committing our names to centres we may not be living near, or need, when we were offered a spot.

To secure a venerated place, there are two types of mothers. Firstly, those Kikki K VIP members that are organised enough to put their child’s name down when they are in utero. I admire them, really I do, and I even tried to be like them. I am like them, a little. I love Kikki K, and I love even more spending money there. I somehow, disappointingly, never manage to actually find time to use the stuff….the beautiful organisational folders sit emptily by my pile of papers in my inbox. It’s one of my many skills my husband marvels at.

Then, there are those mothers like me, who always mean to…..really really plan to. But……don’t quite get the forms finished. Or sent in……another skill I possess.

By baby number 3, I had learnt a bit more about the competitive nature of childcare spots, and had put down my unborn baby’s details down three months before he was born, in 2015. Smugly I sent off the email, only to get a prompt reply that there was not a spot available until at least 2017, two years away. This was a centre that wasn’t even open yet!

Through many boring hours reading the wonders spouted by flashy childcare centre websites, I developed a simple and transparent system of only choosing centres that didn’t charge a fee. This filter narrows your selection to about twenty five percent of centres. If I see a centre that is prepared to not push you for an administration fee, then I am going to instantly feel more love for you than the others. I saw the policy as a symbol of their openness and generosity, not as a tactic of devouring money from desperate parents who probably will never be given the chance to step foot in the centre.

For those of us who are committed to an area – we have a mortgage, we have connections in the community (through a primary school), then all we can do is wait. And hope. How ethical is it for places to charge fees, knowing that their lists are overflowing with children?Is there any possibility of returning the money to parents once their child doesn’t get a spot. The combination of limited places of preschools in my local area (and I’m sure many others) and the documented evidence that pre-schooling is essential for child’s development adds to this issue. It is scary how slim our chances are of gaining a spot and how desperate we all are to get one.

The problem with this, the issue that underpins our desperate hope, is that childcare centres charge a waitlist fee, some charge a large one. I’ve heard of anything between $20 (average) to $200 on non refundable wait list fees to put your name at the end of a very long list. Some need to pay a deposit, plus the bond, which for one mother was non refundable once they decided they no longer wanted to place. That leaves lots of money sitting around, for the Queen (or King) to be counting in her counting room.

What is this administration fee really for? How much time and effort does it really take to enter the details onto a computer? I know it takes me an incredibly painfully long time to fill in an enrolment form, but do they need to re-enter it, or can’t they merely scan it or file it? I have read that some councils use this for future budgeting and staffing requirements.

In my research, I have come to understand that the situation as it stands is perfectly legal. It continues to be so as the fee is only the promise of a possibility of a place, not a guarantee. I have issues with those high demand centres accepting money from everyone. It seems unethical that those centres know most of the parents applying don’t have any chance as their lists are overflowing like a chocolate fountain at every happening kid’s party. This leads me to me asking ‘show me the money’! How much unjustified administrative fees sit in coffers throughout the inner west, from parents who never even had a chance of a place.

I’ve learnt that there are incredibly organised mothers who are right on top of this issue. They use a tried and tested email of regularly calling the centres and sending off emails checking their child’s wait list status. One Mum, used a copy and paste job – a gentle probe disguised as ‘checking if any more information was required for their child’s enrolment’. Any form of regular contact is apparently an opportunity that could potentially bring us closer to a spot.

Yet, this presents me with further questions – what components underpin the decisions regarding the places that are given? I am too polite to regularly check in for an update on a place, not wanted to disturb people who are busy looking after children. Rather, naively perhaps, I see it as my job to wait for a spot to become available, and to trust in the system. But I wonder, does my meekness imply that I don’t deserve a spot, and furthermore, how do they decide which child is given a spot? Is it order of the child waitlisted, or is it order of priority (parent working, disabled, etc), or is it to appease those desperate parents that continually call the centres? Finally, is there any independent auditor who is monitoring this selection process?

In my research I was told of instances where centres can’t give the place away. They try to contact parents who have changed location or don’t return the centre’s phone calls, so apparently, by not keeping our details current, we are somehow missing out on places. Personally, I think this situation might occur as often as Nessie appears in the Loch. It certainly hasn’t been my experience, I apparently still don’t have a place at any of the centres I put my now four year old daughter’s name down at three years ago.

Is it really ethically acceptable for centres to take money off parents of two or three year old children, knowing that they have children who have been on the list for three or more years before them? The Inner West is a place to raise children, to make money, to spend money – in houses, in the great shops and cafes, and on endless waitlist fees that, similarly to your late night partying Saturday nights, you are never going to get back.

 

 

Final note – dedicated to my Mother’s Group in Balmain, 2010, who gave me many invaluable pieces of advice, including childcare (which although I didn’t follow, was still brilliant and demonstrated to me how much you all knew what they were doing), and who got me through many insane moments with my first darling – a little runner (who you all kindly took turns in running after, thus giving me a break). Thanks ladies!