'The Register' began as a few names on an A4 sheet and grew into a publication that is proving a lifesaver to hard-pressed parents in south London.
Kathryn's problem was tricky: she needed someone to look after her two children three nights a week, 4pm to 10pm, while she taught classical piano from home. She could have gone to an agency, but instead placed an advert seeking "an interesting individual" in a magazine called The Register.

For pounds 15, she placed an advert in three fortnightly editions. Six weeks later, she has appointed someone. When we speak on the phone, the new childminder is out skateboarding with the kids. "It's early days," says Kathryn, "but she's already shown initiative, so things are looking good."

Virge has equally tricky requirements. An actress, her job often means being called up at short notice. "I've had the phone go at 2.05 saying they want me at 3. What I wanted was a bank of people at the end of the phone I could go 'Help!' to." To her surprise, an advert in The Register yielded six local people willing and able to provide childcare at the last minute.

The Register calls itself simply "the childcare listings magazine" and has thrown similar life-lines to hundreds of working parents in south London. As Carla Shimeld, its founder, puts it: "We say to people that we are a bit like Exchange & Mart for child care, in the sense that we are full of Wants and Offers. But actually we're more, because that magazine is anonymous and doesn't give you anything else and we're almost a consultancy - we're on the phone and we talk."

"We have a tremendous amount of feedback," says her co-director, Elinor Line. "Parents and carers ring us with the most incredible stories - and lots of queries, from 'What do I do because I work freelance and my needs are so ad-hoc?' to 'How do I check a police record?' "

It is this personal, value-added service that for Penny, head of exhibitions at a major museum, gives The Register the edge over an agency. "Carla and Elinor are good at showing you the pitfalls and insisting on your acting responsibly when interviewing and vetting carers."

In financial terms, most people would welcome any alternative to an agency, as placement fees alone can be anything from pounds 500 to pounds 750 plus VAT. For Debbie, a producer of television commercials, the equation is simple: "pounds 15 [the minimum subscription to The Register] is so little money that it's got to be worth a shot."

But Carla and Elinor rally to the agencies' defence. "We don't knock agencies," Elinor assures me. "I'm embarrassed sometimes when people think that we do. Agencies are particularly useful for women who don't even have the time to get The Register and phone around - they want somebody else to handle it all, which is perfectly justified. The subscribers who like to use The Register are very much 'hands-on' mums and dads who want to feel that they are in charge of something that's terribly important, very emotional."

Carla began The Register when she was running the Camberwell Working Mothers Group. "It wasn't a publishing venture first, just a networking thing. People used to ring up and say they needed a nanny share and did I know of any other family in the area. So I put these on paper - it was just a quarter of an A4 page - but more and more people got to hear about that and it just grew." Two and a half years ago Carla made the decision to "publish properly," and Elinor came on board.

The Register is now 50 pages and growing, swelled by a recent foray into territory north of the river. But it is still put together in Carla's back bedroom, and has an endearingly non-glossy, higgledy-piggledy feel to it.

Would further expansion beyond the current run of 400 threaten the grassroots ethos of the project? Both women are aware of the danger. As Carla explains, "This all started off because of local knowledge and the need to provide a local service. What we're trying to do is get bigger but not lose that intimacy. But it's a very fine balance."

Whatever happens in the future, The Register has proved that one community can find solutions to some of its childcare problems. Perhaps other communities will end up emulating this project; perhaps one day Carla and Elinor will find themselves in charge of a national publication - an Exchange & Mart with legs. One thing is certain, the problems surrounding childcare won't go away, however many episodes of Panorama are made telling mothers to stay at home with their children.

'The Register': 0171-701 6111.

Comments