BR's child care on the right lines: Helen Hague on the commercial arguments for nurseries in the workplace

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The Independent Online
A NEW service for commuters is being advertised at Newcastle upon Tyne railway station. InterCity is setting up its first workplace nursery - and there will be spaces for commuters' children. The nursery, run in partnership with the private sector, will provide up to 50 places. Some will be reserved for British Rail staff, but the bulk will be sold to meet the child-care needs of other working parents in the area.

It is not a new venture for British Rail: Network SouthEast opened nurseries at Oxford and Wimbledon, south-west London, 18 months ago. After rigorous evaluation of the business case for this particular brand of diversification, two more are scheduled. A nursery will open at Watford Junction in mid-April and another at East Croydon, south London, in the autumn.

Kay Turner, nursery project manager for Network SouthEast, explains the importance of putting child care on BR's agenda: 'We want to address the needs of our own staff and provide a structure that will survive after privatisation. Working in partnership with other employers seems the best way forward.'

Employers who join a partnership not only get priority for their own staff; they may also benefit from tax concessions for providing employees with child care.

The BR experience of setting up nurseries will be presented at a conference on 23 February. Bernard Williams, personnel director for Network SouthEast, will argue that 'good child care makes good business sense', spelling out the message that canny employers are motivated by something more practical than altruism.

The conference, Childcare - a Business Benefit, is organised by Working for Childcare, a national voluntary organisation that aims to promote high-quality, affordable provision.

Vanessa Schepers, director of Working for Childcare, reports an awakening of interest as the recession lifts. 'We have been getting a lot of inquiries in the past few months. The recession put a lot of things on hold, but people are gearing up to look at child care again.'

At the conference, the emphasis will be on providing practical advice and examples of good practice. It will be opened by Howard Davies, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry.

Delegates will hear how BT formulated its child-care package, and have the chance to attend sessions on costing the benefits of helping employees to meet their child-care needs, as well as workshops on tax and finance, setting up partnership nurseries and contracting and tendering for services.

For small firms, the business case for child care - promoting staff loyalty, retaining key employees and lowering recruitment costs - holds good. But, as Jacqueline Jaynes, employment affairs chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, acknowledges, it is not formally on her organisation's agenda: 'Taking a strategic view is more difficult for small firms. Over the past two or three years, many have been concentrating on how to survive.'

But as recession lifts and recruitment pressures intensify, astute small businesses that put child care on the agenda will reap rewards, Mrs Jaynes believes. 'The challenge is to find flexible, workable solutions,' she says. It is a theme she will enlarge upon at the conference.

Ms Schepers says organisations exploring child care should be aware of all options before deciding on which route best suits the needs of children, parents, and employers. 'There is a great pent-up demand for flexible, affordable care. It must be high-quality; otherwise parents won't be happy and will withdraw children, and initiatives could well founder.' She says it is important that schemes are well researched and well resourced.

Ms Schepers says there is no single solution. 'The message to employers is to get informed about all the options. Child care is a long-term investment. The more the business benefits are highlighted, the more companies are likely to realise that it makes sound business sense.'

Working for Childcare, tel 071-700 0281

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