Co working that works

Following on from my last blog post, in a bid to find #workthatworks I have been researching (and becoming really inspired/ slightly obsessed) with the concept of co working spaces for parents that have on site childcare. It seems like a flexible childcare and working situation of dreams! Many parents who work freelance struggle with the traditional childcare provision as they may have different amounts of work at different times and nursery's, as we know, can only provide the same hours every week with the possibility of add ons if you are very lucky. Freelance working is becoming more and more popular, especially with women, as a result of needing more flexibility than the workplace can give them- a lot needs to change it seems! Thanks to a wonderful Facebook group for freelance parents set up by Frankie of DIFTK (doing it for the kids) I recently came across the amazing Amy Martin. She is on a mission to change the traditional model of childcare provision that isn't working for so many people, in her words I want to explore ways to interrogate and subvert existing models of childcare to fit my needs as a nomadic worker and mum in the 21st Century. I believe that existing childcare provision serves industrial 9-5 workers; it is over-priced and mostly average. Young women through vocational training often deliver it and it pays them poorly. Options are limited and subscription is vast.

Amy is based in Birmingham and founded FAMALAM which includes a pop up co working space with creche at Impact Hub Birmingham. It even includes a skills trade option (work as a playworker in the creche and in return have access to membership) I love this idea! she is trying to change the way we see childcare in the modern day with her initiative #RadicalChildcare.

Amy kindly agreed to answer some of my questions so I could share them with you, as I knew her answers would be super inspiring! See the interview below and be sure to watch this Ted talk she did for TEDXBRUM too (it had me nodding furiously in tears!) SO good!

What led you to start 'FAMALAM' and the co-creche at Impact Hub?

Whilst on maternity leave with my first - Theo I read a report by Nesta called - Mothers of Innovation. I found it hugely motivating, it detailed the many ways that Mothers can change the world. The report explains that socially, commercially and economically, mothers are a force for innovation around the world and explains how and why mothers make such great innovators. I also came to the realisation that my working life was never going to be the same and that now more than ever I had to find work that enabled me to spend quality time with my family as well as work that was rewarding. I was struck with how difficult the childcare conundrum was for everyone, especially freelancers like me, as for many, traditional childcare – a nursery or pre-school setting, can prove expensive and rigid, with long waiting lists, large deposits, rigid contractual days and fees that duplicate the household mortgage or rent payment. It was serving industrial 9-5pm workers and like many my work didn’t match up, being freelance can mean droughts and busy periods, it can mean working evenings or early mornings and I couldn’t find childcare to fit. It seemed like many people made choices about childcare based on economic reasons, not necessarily what seemed best for the child. Going to work in order to afford childcare seemed incongruent to me. I, like many, see the childcare industry, largely run by private companies as hugely flawed. The best provision goes to those who can afford it rather than those who need it, our poorest children miss out. Front line workers are often young women on minimum wage, there is little professional development or career progression for these young women but yet they are given the mammoth task of helping to raise our children in their most formative years.

I was a year into motherhood and disillusioned with my childcare options. I wanted to sense check with others in my situation and was invited by Immy Kaur at Impact Hub Birmingham to host a discussion. We hosted a lively conversation with a brilliant bunch of mums, dads, nans, policy makers, funders, artists, freelancers those with and without children on the complexities of the issue. Whilst babies and toddlers played I shared my #RadicalChildcare utopia, we explored what radical innovation in childcare might look like in Birmingham and discussed examples of other models from other parts of the UK and beyond, what made them successful and considered the specific needs of our community, especially freelance and nomadic workers.

A few months later Arts Council England awarded me some funding and in 2015/16 we piloted 2 seasons of co-creche at Impact Hub Birmingham, a pop up co-working space with on-site childcare for working parents from the creative industries plus a season of stay and plays.

The idea was simple – get some professional childminders in a room, supported by parent playworkers with some resources, toys, musical instruments, play kitchens, teepees etc. and offer to look after people’s children whilst they worked downstairs. It was offered on a pay what you could afford basis and it worked. Sessions were 3 hours and a local children’s centre advised me with the logistics - the staff ratios, health and safety, child protection etc. Parents who hadn’t used ‘traditional’ childcare yet – either because they felt that traditional childcare wasn’t for them or because their babies were only months old, were able to gently stretch the distance between them and their babies and see how it felt. The atmosphere was (mostly) serene and moms could come and go to breastfeed and check in as much as they liked.

We soon realised that this was too important to just be a pop up initiative and so in February this year we have launched a Parent Membership at Impact Hub Birmingham which includes 12 hours a month of co-creche and an additional 2 days access to Impact Hub Birmingham for £55+Vat/month. We have entered into a contract with a childcare provider and have an additional skills trade programme where we offer our premium membership (worth £240/month) to volunteer playworkers in exchange for 12 hours of their time. Playworkers can be parents and must be experienced in the care of young children, they received playworker training including child protection and a DBS check.

What is your personal work/ life/ childcare juggle like at the moment? Do you manage to find the right balance?

I am now on maternity leave with my second - Remy he is 5 months old and I will be formally joining the Impact Hub Birmingham team when I finish mat leave in November. Remy will be part of the creche and coming to work with me for a few months until he turns 1 in February. My eldest goes to a council run children’s centre nursery in Birmingham called St. Thomas’s, it’s wonderful the staff are all very qualified as it is part of a nursery school. He goes 3 days a week, is with me for 1 day and with his nan for another, I am hoping that Remy will do the same. I have really struggled with finding good childcare though, during this #radicalchildcare journey I have heard very sad tales of prospective visits to private daycare settings. One mum told me that she came back after a ‘settle session’ to find a young 16 year old girl who had been given charge of her 3yr old, engaging her daughter by cutting out pictures of toys from an Argos catalogue and making a collage of what the little girl wanted for Christmas. Government rhetoric is about ‘getting women back to work’ an economic argument, rather than one that imagines the best possible provision for our young children through this critical stage in a child’s development and I believe that this is to the detriment of everyone.The feelings surrounding childcare for many parents are generally wrapped in an amount of shame, guilt and limitation and I saw FAMALAM as a way to engage people, children and families in this conversation.

Do you have any advice for parents struggling with the childcare system and flexible working?

I don’t think there is not a one size fits all approach, for me it’s helped to find a peer group of freelance parents who all had the same childcare struggles and who were open minded about trialling new ideas - I held an open workshop to find them, but finding networks online could be just as good. Then there are models like Baby sitting circles, parent café (like they have in Poland), pop up co-working & crèche or full on parent childcare cooperative that could be adapted to fit the requirements of the group.

I have done a PDF on how to set up a co-creche type initiative, it's a bit clunky but might be worth a look.

What are your views on the government's new 30hrs free childcare system? Do you think it's a positive step forward or is the concept flawed?

I think it’s throwing (not enough) money into a broken system. Learning starts at birth, not at school, so a quality workforce is essential for quality early learning. We are trying to deliver quality early learning with an under-paid, under-respected, under-trained workforce of people often thought of as “child-minders”. Mainstream childcare providers are warning that they cannot meet the thirty hours of free childcare pledged by Government, and state that low pay is driving experience and talent from the sector. In this situation, everyone loses: childcare is reduced to a transaction out of step with the working patterns of parents.

With more freelancers and micro-businesses than ever before, the issue of childcare is no longer deemed to be a women’s issue, but a wider question about how we can work and care for others in a way that complements, rather than competes against each other.

Good quality childcare that works for parents and children - leads to greater diversity and inclusion in wider society. Parents are at present undervalued by current mainstream childcare providers, which rely on transactional relationships. Our research indicates that many parents would like to be more involved in childcare, and in doing so learn new skills from peers - whilst being able to work on the flexible basis so often demanded of freelancers. One recommendation would be to make seed funding accessible to Parent led childcare initiatives like parent co-operatives and pop up coworking creche programmes. Seed funding could pay for setup costs, insurance, resources training etc and encourage parents to produce their own childcare solutions, suitable to their needs and values. This would go towards turning parents from passive recipients of services into active participants by combining the skill of professional workers with the lived experience of families.

One of the most interesting recommendations in recent months came from Joseph Rowntree Foundation. They suggest a re-framing of childcare as a social enterprise & not a commercial one. Private Sector Nurseries make up the bulk of the industry and as profit making companies their drive is to turn a profit. This keeps staff from better pay, leaves little room for reflective practice and keeps childcare transactional.

As a social enterprise childcare could attract funding to find innovative solutions just as the health and elderly care sectors have attracted divergent thinking through incubators and hackathons.

What's next? Do you have any more exciting plans for the future?

We have received seed funding from the Big Lottery and over the last months; our team has already invested in building a community of childcare experts, parents, design thinkers and systems change practitioners and openly designing the programme.

In April of this year I received funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation to explore the feasibility of a Birmingham 'Children's Hub' - a multifaceted space that would combine an arts programme, childcare space, collaborative workspace and community venue focused on celebrating, supporting and championing childhood in Birmingham. The Children’s Hub would be a permanent home for the #RadicalChildcare work and will convene a unique ecosystem of partners, resources and inspiration in order to grow opportunities for Parents and children in Birmingham.