FIFO families seek flexible care

Cheryl Duffy is one of a lucky few.

The mother of three can vary the days her five-year-old son Josh goes to his childcare centre to fit in with her partner's work roster and her full-time job.

Ms Duffy says it is flexibility that makes going back to work worthwhile and helps other fly-in, fly-out families who take their children to Beldon School of Early Learning in Perth's northern suburbs.

When Mrs Duffy's husband Phil, an aircraft engineer who works fluctuating rosters and is often away, has time off he looks after Josh, saving on childcare fees.

"At the end of every month, I email (centre director) Tammie a list of my requests for the following months and she pretty much works around it," she said.

Many other families have to keep up payments to maintain their child's care place, even when they do not go, to make sure their spot is not given to another child.

Beldon School of Early Learning's flexibility is not common in Australia's childcare industry, as highlighted in the Productivity Commission's draft report on child care and early learning.

It found nearly one in four parents working part-time or not working, with a child aged 12 or under, were unable to work because they could not get suitable child care.

Non-standard working hours were common, it said, with almost half of all families with at least one parent working variable hours or being on call.

Despite this, most childcare centres are open only on weekdays, between about 7am and 6pm.

The inflexibility of traditional childcare services is a big problem for shift and fly-in, fly-out workers, according to the founder of a support network for FIFOs.

FIFO Families director Nicole Ashby said she had raised the issue with politicians in the hope changes would be made to help families struggling with child care.

"We need to acknowledge there are a lot of non-traditional working hours and roles that thousands and thousands of people are involved in," she said.

"What can we do to adjust the system to fit the people, instead of getting people to change to fit the system?"

Beldon School of Early Learning director Tammie Kirkhope said she could not understand why more centres did not offer flexibility, such as alternate weeks or monthly rosters for families.

"We cater for the customers, rather than the customers catering for us," she said. "It's not too hard for us.

"A lot of the families know we need two weeks notice. A lot of them know their rosters two weeks or a month in advance."

The flexibility, as well as school drop-off and pick-ups, attracts FIFO families and shift workers such as emergency service workers to use the centre. WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy senior policy adviser Susan Cull said the childcare industry needed to be "more reflective of the modern family" and the Government, childcare industry and other industries with non-traditional nine-to-five jobs needed to work in partnership.

"The issue of being able to access child care out of those hours (9am-5pm) is an issue for workers in all industries, not just those in the resources sector," she said.

Former Childcare Association of WA president Rory Vassallo, who sold his 22 WA childcare centres four months ago, said he could not see existing childcare centres opening round-the-clock within the next 30 years.

"They're not equipped for it in the first place, unless you want to have kids sleeping in a room the size of a tennis court," he said.

"Then you've got the planning and safety issues of people coming in and out at all hours."

The West Australian

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