While extended hours may provide flexibility for some families, other families may be looking for shorter sessions or greater choice about what hours they use and pay for.
Flexible sessions are one way that early childhood services can align service operating hours with the needs of the family.
A session of care is ‘is the minimum period of time in respect of which an approved child care service charges a fee for providing child care in any particular case’[i]
Under Family Assistance Law, early childhood services have considerable discretion to provide flexible sessions. For example, while long day care and family day care services must be available to provide care for at least eight hours on a normal working day, this does not prevent services offering families shorter sessions during this period.
According to ECA’s Long Day Care Flexibility Survey Report many services early childhood services are offering early, late, short, long and multiple sessions.
This can enable families to reduce their costs, as they may only pay for time that they require, rather than a ‘daily fee’. Flexible sessions may also help services to reduce overall staff costs and even improve the utilisation of services if they have places available.
Managing flexible sessions
Utilisation is a key issue when considering flexible sessions. Offering flexible sessions to families, such as shorter sessions may adversely service utilisation. Services should be careful to ensure that children’s paid hours are closely matched with staffed hours. For example, if a short session is offered during the middle of the day, more staff will be required during that period.
Services can track children’s attendance during the day, and across different session types, to understand how many staff with particular qualifications required at different times. This helps to reduce staffing costs, and ensures that utilisation is not compromised.
Early childhood services with economies of scale may also have greater capacity to implement flexible sessions. While it may not be financially viable to operate with small numbers during off peak times at some services, other services can cross-subsidise, due to high numbers of children attending at peak times.
Larger services may also benefit from greater flexibility with staffing being able to stagger shifts more effectively. However, staff may also be reluctant to work shift patterns matching the children’s session times. Other staff may recognise the benefits of working different hours. Services offering flexible enrolment may also find it difficult to roster staff appropriately if there are changes at short notice.
- Consult with families on whether they prefer (and would commit to) using short, long, or multiple sessions across the day.
- Look at utilisation across the day and where staff are required (i.e. more at busy periods of the day and less at off peak times).
- Look at how children are placed in rooms in centre based services. If small numbers of children are present during off peak times, consider moving children into one room to maximise utilisation and reduce staff costs.
- Investigate what rostering technologies are available to track and improve utilisation across the day.
- Think about how quarantining spaces might enable greater flexibility in sessions and enrolment for families accessing the service. Also consider how keeping free spaces may impact on service utilisation overall.
For more information and resources on flexibility in early childhood services, please visit ECA’s website.
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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Australian Government or officers of the Department of Education.