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Employers need to reconsider their definition of childcare vouchers

There is a common misconception when it comes to childcare vouchers that this popular employee benefit is restricted only to babies and nurseries. Yet whilst childcare vouchers continue to provide invaluable financial support for parents of young children, the scope of the scheme is, in fact, much wider and applies to children up to the age of 15 years or 16 years if a child is registered as disabled.

In far too many cases, both employers and working parents have become blinkered by their perception of what the vouchers can offer - one could argue that the name 'childcare voucher' says it all - and as a result many families are missing out on the potential savings and additional benefits that childcare vouchers can offer to the working parents of 'older' children.

The financial cost of childcare doesn't, as many people believe, stop when children reach school age. In fact, for many working parents, the pressures to continue financing after school clubs and play schemes continues long into a child's primary and secondary schooling.

When one considers that, according to the Daycare Trust's 2009 survey of childcare costs, the typical cost of placing a child in private, voluntary and independently run summer play scheme is £98.73 per week in England (and it's even more in other parts of the United Kingdom), working parents of older children need ongoing support to meet the costs of accessing registered, reliable care for their offspring while they're at work.  

The potential savings available by using childcare vouchers to pay for this holiday care are not insignificant and could amount to as much as £28 per week. The savings could be further increased as many summer clubs offer discounts to parents paying with certain childcare vouchers.  For example users of Accor Services Childcare Vouchers can save up to a third off the price of several holiday camps.

The importance of clarifying exactly who the vouchers can benefit and the type of after school and other care services they can enable working parents to gain access to is made even more significant when one considers that, as in a recent survey by Simply Hired, less than half of employees would describe their employer as ‘family friendly'.

Based on this, there's certainly scope to change employees' perception of their employer if companies can enable their people to better understand that childcare vouchers can help them to access support - including after school care, holiday clubs and summer camps - for children of all ages.

The benefits of clarifying the scope of support available through childcare vouchers are not restricted to working parents themselves, though.

The payback of ensuring parents are aware of the childcare support available through them can relieve much of the pressure associated with the long school holidays. Access to flexible and more cost effective holiday schemes, for example, mean that working parents within the same team or department don't submit identical annual leave requests that put their colleagues under pressure. And for many working parents the pressure to take unpaid or, in some circumstances, unauthorised leave, is minimised or removed completely.

Employers can begin the work of increasing take-up of childcare vouchers among the working parents of older children with more specific, targeted communications that remind them of the relevance and benefits of the vouchers to them. Employers should ensure their childcare voucher provider offers active, intelligent, two-way communication through for example, employee surveys or face-to-face feedback sessions to assess the take up and experience of childcare vouchers among those with 'older' children and help guide an employer's future communication tools and techniques.

This opportunity will certainly be missed if the benefits of childcare vouchers are only communicated to those returning from maternity or paternity leave. 

Communication, clarity and clear terminology, it seems, are the critical factors when it comes to enabling these employees to leverage the financial and personal benefits of childcare vouchers and preventing them from losing touch with the benefits that can save them time, stress and money.

After all, the success of the childcare voucher scheme itself since it was introduced to UK workplaces over 20 years ago, as well as the furore and concern among many employers and working parents when the Government floated plans to scrap the National Insurance exemption last year, just goes to show how important childcare vouchers are when it comes to keeping working parents in the workplace and helping them to make significant financial saving on their childcare - whether it's for nursery or school aged children!

Patrick Langlois, is managing director of Accor Services