An au pair can be a cheaper way to get help with your childcare, but there are several potential downsides.With the cost of childcare and travel increasing above incomes, many families are facing a situation where it's becoming unviable for both parents to work. An au pair could be one way to reduce the cost and also get some extra help with (some of) the housework.
But while it may be cheaper financially, there are plenty of other things to consider before you take one in for the first time.
What is an au pair?
An au pair is a young woman or man, generally aged between 17 and 27, who has come to the UK (generally from elsewhere in Europe) to provide live-in childcare and improve their English in return for accommodation, food and what's termed 'pocket money'. As they live in with the family, you need to have a spare room.
As well as childcare, they can help with 'light housework' (which you define as part of your agreement with them, and from what I've heard it's crucial to get this right), which include preparing the kids' meals. But they're not to be confused with a live-in nanny, which is a totally different and far more expensive option.
Au pairs are not trained in childcare or first aid and they're not classified as employees for tax purposes. Instead, an au pair is seen as being on a cultural exchange programme. They will often be enrolled to study English at a local college.
What does an au pair cost?
The 'pocket money' an au pair receives is fairly standard across the UK, despite the differences in living costs in different regions. A typical starting point is £70 for a 25-hour week (maximum five hours' work per weekday) plus perhaps a couple of babysitting shifts. This will obviously increase if the au pair works more hours.
It also varies depending on the skills you want. You might have to pay extra for a high level of spoken English. If you recruit via an agency, they may also charge registration or other fees on top.
You should also factor in the cost of food for the au pair, new furniture and equipment (for example a bed and TV), potentially higher car insurance if you want the au pair to be able to use your car and public liability insurance if you don't already have it as part of your home insurance policy.
However, if you have two or more children the total cost of an au pair versus the average cost of formal childcare probably makes it look a very appealing option, financially at least. Childcare charity the Daycare Trust says the average cost of a childminder or nursery is around £100 a week per child for a 25-hour week.
Having said that, you cannot pay an au pair using childcare vouchers, as they are not registered with Ofsted.
Pros of au pairs
- They are cheaper than formal childcare options such as childminders and nursery and the cost is not per child.
- They can provide some help with the housework, in addition to childcare responsibilities.
- They are on hand in case of emergency childcare requirements (although they may need to be paid extra for this).
- You will probably learn something about their country and culture and they will learn lots about yours, and they could become a much-loved member of the household.
Cons of au pairs
- The au pair industry is unregulated, so there is very little recompense if things go badly wrong, and au pairs are untrained.
- You have another person permanently living in your home for the duration of their assignment.
- Because of their inexperience, they are not really a good option for looking after very young children, particularly if both parents are away for long periods of the day.
- They may not speak good English on arrival, which may be problematic, although you should encourage them to take English lessons if they aren't already.
- Au pairs typically only stay for six months to a year, which means your children will need to get used to a new person every time one leaves.
One family's experience
Samantha Barnes is a mother of two. She runs her own business, Artypops, which provides art workshops for adults and children. She and her husband used au pairs following the birth of their second child.
They tried their first one over the summer for three months. When she returned home they took in a second au pair for a year. She told me: "It was great for us at the time because of the cost of nursery and because it meant there was always someone on hand to help out. It meant I could work in my studio in the garden but I was close by if something happened. It also meant my husband and I could start to enjoy a bit of a life again, because the au pair could babysit."
However, it wasn't all positive: "It took them a while to settle in and there was always someone there in the house. Because they're young, it was also something of an emotional rollercoaster dealing with things like homesickness."
An unregulated industry
As I've said in the cons above, the au pair industry is unregulated. There is a trade body, the British Au Pairs Agencies Association, which sets minimum standards for its member agencies but these aren't legally binding.
I asked charity the Daycare Trust why, given the rising cost of childcare, they didn't promote au pairs more as a possible option. They replied: "Au pairs are usually live in, so parents need to have the space to accommodate an au pair which isn't an option for lots of the parents we support. Having said that, they are a very valid form of childcare for many parents with older children and lots of parents have really good experiences of using an au pair."
If you're thinking about taking in an au pair, you might want to take a look at this discussion on the Mumsnet forum, which contains lots of experiences (good and bad) and tips.