Meeting up with some girlfriends recently, we started talking about the summer holidays. But rather than the chats we used to have pre-kids – where to go for our annual girls' trip and exactly how many pairs of pool sliders to pack – the conversation was far more stressful: what the hell to do with the kids during the summer holidays.
Because as any working parent knows, summer childcare over the six (or sometimes even seven) long weeks while school is out is a NIGHTMARE.
And while our kids love it, trying to juggle work and childcare – and that little thing called your bank balance – makes August the most stressful month of the year.
Take my friend Emma, who works full-time. With no hope of taking extra time off in summer on top of her already-scheduled two weeks' annual leave, she’s having to juggle pretty much every holiday childcare option going: splashing out on holiday clubs for her seven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, sending them both on a week-long holiday camp and roping in family and friends whenever she can.
She says: “It’s a bloody logistical nightmare that you have to start thinking about months in advance. I put more planning into holiday childcare than I did into arranging my wedding.”
At the moment my kids – aged two and four – are at a brilliant nursery open 51 weeks of the year, meaning I’ve not had to even think about holiday childcare. But with my eldest starting school in September, that’s all set to change.
So what exactly are the holiday childcare options if you’re a working parent?
Probably the most popular are holiday clubs or playschemes, which usually take kids from four until around 16 and are either privately run or organised by local authorities or schools.
At the privately run clubs, even though the core hours are not work-friendly (usually 10am-4pm), you can often pay for the extended hours of 8am-6pm. It’s not cheap, though – in fact the latest figures from the Family and Childcare Trust Holiday Childcare Report 2017 out this week, state that the cost of holiday childcare has risen 4 per cent since 2016, to an average of £125 per week.
Council-run playschemes are different depending on where you live. They are normally open-access – meaning first come, first served – and you apply and pay for them in the same way as privately run holiday schemes. These playschemes may also have some places that are free or reduced cost for low-income families.
One big downside is some holiday clubs only run for the first four weeks of the summer holidays, leaving you with two weeks of cobbled-together childcare… and even more stress. Which is definitely something to bear in mind when you’re planning childcare for next summer. Argh.
But the good news is, if the holiday club or playscheme is Ofsted-registered, you can use your childcare vouchers (up until your child is 15.). You can “bank” them throughout the year to effectively spread the cost of covering the summer-childcare costs. These are worth up to £55 a week for basic-rate tax-payers.
If you receive the childcare element of Working Tax Credit, you can also use this to help cover the cost of summer childcare, getting up to £175 a week for one child and £300 a week for two or more children. But again, only if the childcare is Ofsted registered.
And annoyingly, unless you’ve been super organised and already booked, you’ve probably missed out on a place. The Family and Childcare Trust reports a significant shortage in certain areas, with a majority of local authorities in England admitting they either do not have or don't know if they have enough summer childcare provision available
Which means parents like my mate Steph, who works in events, have missed the boat. She says, "My daughter is just finishing reception and I had no idea holiday clubs were so popular – or so short on places. When I tried to book a few weeks ago, there was absolutely nothing available. Which means I’m now scrabbling around for childcare and in a total panic."
If you’ve got the budget, you could send your kids away to a residential holiday camp. They usually take children from seven upwards and cost anything from around £300 to £600 for a seven-night trip. Gulp. If you’ve got more than one child, prepare to be (practically) bankrupted.
Another option is taking unpaid leave for the whole of August – an extreme move but something that’s increasingly popular. And why not, when you’re probably spending an entire month’s salary on holiday childcare anyway?
Publicist Natalie, whose sons are eight and 10, says, "This year, I have decided to take August off. I worked out it was more cost-effective to do that than to dish out for over £100 a week per child for holiday clubs – which the younger one hates and sobs about going to – as well as having the swap-playdates.
Another way to cover the long school holiday is to book off separate weeks from your partner and do "shift parenting". A study last year found nearly three-quarters of parents do this – great for saving on childcare costs, arguably not so great for your relationship.
If you’ve got the budget, you could send your kids away to a residential holiday camp. They usually take children from seven upwards and cost anything from around £300 to £600 for a seven-night trip
Splitting childcare with friends is something else a lot of working parents do – and given it’s the only free option, definitely something I’m going to try first next summer.
On the plus side, your own kids get looked after. Yet it does mean that when it’s your turn, you might have a huge gang of kids to entertain.
Roping in your parents to help is another option. But given they probably don’t live anywhere near you, that really means packing your kids off for weeks on end.
Fiona is an extreme example of this. Her son’s nursery is shut over the summer holidays, so he’s going to stay with her parents in Hong Kong until the September term starts.
Fiona says, "At first, I was pretty excited as I called up my friends one by one with: 'And I will go drinking with you. And with you. And you.' But I think it's really hit home this week. I've managed to find a way to spend part of the time with him –I've found work through an existing client to justify a trip out there for a couple of weeks. My partner has taken it hard and, to be honest, he wasn't too keen on him being away from us for so long. But, in the absence of other reliable back-up care, we felt letting Max go to Hong Kong was the only option."
If sending your kids away for the whole summer is too much to bear, some childminders offer holiday cover. But this can be pricey – the Family and Childcare Trust survey found the average cost of a childminder in the summer holidays is £210 a week. One option is to club together with friends to cover the cost – a childminder can look after a maximum of six children under the age of eight.
A summer au pair is another option if you work full-time (and have got the room for them to stay). They cost around £100 for six hours of childcare a day, regardless of the number of children they are looking after.
And on days you’re completely stuck, there are companies like Emergency Childcare who promise to have a nanny or childminder to you with as little as two hours’ notice. This can be expensive though – up to £20 an hour depending on where you live.
All of which basically means we can’t wait for the summer holidays to be over. Is it time for back to school yet?
Five summer camps that won't break the bank (TOO MUCH)
Kingswood camps have five different locations across the UK and offer 60 different activities, including obstacle challenges, archery, abseiling and ziplining. Day camps are £29 per day for kids and £39 for adults, if you want to go along too. They’re offering a 10 per cent discount for The Pool readers, just use the code ACTIVE at checkout.
They’re one of the more expensive options, but they do great sales (50-60 per cent) on week-long, all-inclusive camps in various parts of the country. If there’s nothing on the site at the moment that suits you, keep an eye out over the next few weeks, as they are always adding new offers. Also, keep them in mind for next year, because they also do great early-bird sales.
Kings Camp in Bristol offers loads of different sports and activities from kids between the ages of 4 and 11. For the Multiactive camp, it’s £82 for a week-long 9-5 camp where they’ll be sorted into a group with other kids of a similar age.
If your child is more into creative projects than ziplining or archery, Settle Stories in Settle, Yorkshire, is a great alternative. It runs from Monday to Friday from 31st July until the 11th August. It costs £22 for a day or £75 for the week and activities include slam poetry, photography and book-making.