14. Joint assessment of families’ needs and changes in child care provision for single-parent families
14.1. Short description of the innovation
For the past 20 years, the City of Nantes has been adopting policies in the field of child care services, in order not only to increase the number of places in collective child care facilities but also to achieve social objectives, such as social cohesion and reconciliation between work and family life. Emphasis is put on the most vulnerable groups, such as parents returning to work or completing vocational training and experiencing difficult social situations. This initiative intends to address the issue of low-income single parents for whom access to child care services is an obstacle to labour market inclusion. It is the result of an original joint assessment and a strong partnership between local child care institutions (the City of Nantes, the local Family Allowance Fund and the General Council).
The North Nantes district was chosen because of the density of social housing. Some 200 single-parent recipients of the Active Solidarity Income (RSA) are registered there. The main change for single mothers was the merger in 2009 of the Single Parent Allowance (Allocation Parent Isolé) that targeted single parents as part of the RSA programme. As recipients of the RSA, the single parents are now obliged to commit themselves to a process of social and professional inclusion. As a consequence, the General Council in charge of the implementation of the RSA has to find tangible solutions for facilitating the return to employment of single parents. Indeed, a financial incentive such as the RSA has limited effectiveness unless the main barriers to employment for single mothers, such as the lack of suitable child care services, are taken into account.
This innovation can be characterised as an institutional experiment in local welfare governance rather than a grassroots innovation.
14.2. Conception and ways of addressing users
The main innovative dimension is characterised by the improvement of access to child care services for low-income single parents as a way to remove barriers to their professional inclusion. The initiative consists of a new municipal service dedicated to this target group and aiming to develop adequate solutions to their specific needs.
In order to reduce the fragmentation of the local child care system, the City of Nantes set up four Childhood Coordination Centres in the City area in October 2011, in charge of informing and supporting families in their search for early childhood services and of coordinating child care services with other public institutions. Three Childhood Coordination Centres are located in “sensitive urban areas”. The coordinators of the Childhood Coordination Centres play a major role in supporting single mothers undergoing social and professional inclusion: proposing different child care solutions adapted to their needs and contacting the relevant structures with them, acting as an intermediary between the child care services and the employment offices. This coordination between child care and employment services is a major innovation, since before the professionals were not informed of other institutions’ missions and did not contact each other.
In addition, the emergency places service, already existing in Nantes, has been adapted to the needs of low-income single parents looking for a job: the duration period of the emergency care has been extended; new emergency places have been created; a new procedure is in place, giving direct access to places in child care collective centres without going through the municipal admission commission. This exemption of the common rules is characteristic of the initiative, whose aim is to facilitate immediate solutions to emergency situations.
Among the different new services of the initiative, it is also planned to encourage individual care. The idea is to mobilise and support a group of child-minders, who agree to work with single parent families in difficulty. In order to overcome the issue of affordability the City of Nantes, the local CAF and the General Council created a common Guarantee Fund (30,000 euros1) in case families fail to pay the child-minders. This Fund is presented as an innovation in that it is a tangible realisation of the cross-cutting approach encouraged by the three institutions in this initiative.
Six months after the beginning of the initiative, we observed the first signs of a lower demand of single parents than expected. Around 20 families benefited from the initiative from January to July 2012. Among them, five families accepted child-minder services, two of them received places in day-care centres in the framework of the new mechanism reserved for professional inclusion, and the rest of the families were given places in day-care centres through emergency places or usual occasional care. In addition, the Guarantee Fund has not been used yet. Possible explanations are that the selection criteria for beneficiaries were too restrictive and the absence of participation of beneficiaries, associations and child-minders in the project’s elaboration.
14.3. Internal organisation and modes of working
In addition to the newly created child care services aiming to remove obstacles to the professional inclusion of single-parent families, the innovative dimension of this institutional initiative consists of the constitution of cross-cutting modes of working and new professional practices.
A main dimension of the innovation is to promote a better long-term coordination between child care services and local employment offices, in order to facilitate the reconciliation of care and work for single mothers. Although the political support of these three institutions was essential for the emergence of the innovation, its success depends on the quality of cooperation practices between professionals from child care and employment sectors. A preparatory phase constituted a very important period of construction of the initiative in as far as it enabled child care and employment professionals to begin working together “to find a common language”, to create interpersonal relationships between professionals and to enable them to integrate the innovation’s objectives and the respective functions they would have to fulfil. After six months of experimenting, professionals attest to the positive impact of the inter-sectorial cooperation: they contact each other to solve situations affecting single parent families and succeed in finding solutions together. Nevertheless, there is a need to enlarge this cooperation to other public employment services (Municipal Employment Services, State Agency for job seekers).
This initiative provoked resistance among two professional groups. On the one hand, the idea of mobilising a group of child-minders, who agree to work with single parent families, had been developed following the example of a successful project carried out in another city2. The aim is to provide mutual support among child-minders and to give them a secure framework. Nevertheless, in Nantes, 6 months after the beginning of the initiative, the results were very limited. In the local context, where there is a shortage of places, child-minders are in a position to choose the profile of the parents, and low-income single families undergoing professional inclusion are not attractive for them. On the other hand, the introduction of a new framework of action, much more oriented towards the “welfare to work” principle and aiming at changing families’ and professionals’ representations, has impacts on professional practices. Child care professionals and social workers are asked to consider return to work as a new priority in their support to mothers, while until now the focus was put on the wellbeing of the child and the mother. For all groups, child-minders, child care professionals and social workers, the initiative’s new framework of action may be perceived as an intrusion in their practices.
14.4. Interaction with the local welfare system
This innovation has raised awareness among child care professionals and policymakers on the issue of employment and professional inclusion. The introduction of a new priority given to low-income single parents has led to modifications in representations and practices. Concerning municipal child care collective centres, new selection criteria, focusing on this target group, are now used, though it provoked resistance at the beginning among professionals. The idea that child care services should play a role in the professional inclusion of parents is progressively spreading in the local child care system and recognised as legitimate. Nevertheless, it raises the question of whether the innovation could contribute to a sustainable cross-cutting approach between child care and employment policies. In order to enable the City of Nantes, the local CAF and the General Council to cooperate on concrete objectives, the choice was made to work using a project-based logic with objectives, activities, expected results, division of tasks and responsibilities. It permitted professionals, coming from different institutions, to work on common objectives, but it may be difficult to apply to policies.
Local child care policies are facing a financial withdrawal by the National Family Allowance Fund (CNAF), rationalisation of resources and a constant drive for public spending efficiency. In this context, the financial sustainability of this kind of initiative constitutes a major issue. Therefore, the approach chosen by the municipality is to integrate this innovation into local child care policies. The local CAF has a similar strategy of promoting progressive inclusion of the innovation in its general framework of action. A possibility would be to mention the initiative in the Childhood-Youth Contract that frames the financial relationship between the CAF and the municipalities. The three institutional partners in the initiative are planning to carry out an evaluation on the results of the innovation 1 year after its launch. The aim is to decide whether a duplication of the initiative is relevant or not. All three institutions express the desire to pursue the initiative, planned for 2 years, and apply it to the whole territory of Nantes.
Nevertheless, the approach chosen for the dissemination of the initiative, that is to say, an inclusion in mainstream local child care and employment policies, brings into question the possibility of reproducing it. Indeed, the success of the initiative relies mostly on the existing network of child care and employment professionals, who participated in the construction of the mechanisms developed. “The transmission of good practices through procedural guidelines will not be enough to reproduce the initiative to other districts and among other professionals3”. Strong commitment by the three public institutions may be needed to support the dissemination and encourage a larger number of local professionals towards making important changes in their practices and representations.