We are currently getting a lot of questions from families considering an au pair for the first time. The economic situation has made many families re-think their children’s’ education and childcare options for after school or families with younger children are calculating the cost of the nursery or the nanny versus cheaper options such as an au pair.
To make sure we cater for ‘first timers’ the best possible way, here are some of the questions we are asked most frequently.
What are the main differences between a nanny, a child minder and an au pair?
A nanny is a childcare professional. You can expect them to know everything about handling different age groups and they are fully ‘equipped’ to care for babies also. They are unlikely to take on any household task except those directly relating to your children. They live out and come to your house to care for your children as per an agreed schedule. You pay them a salary, expect upward from £350 net per week. She is caring for your child/children only and you pay the same for 1 child or several children. School age children may be too independent for a nanny. If you want any housework done in addition to childcare, expect to pay for a regular cleaner also. Any babysitting or extra hours are extra.
A childminder cares for a number of children at her own home. Parents take and collect children from the childminder on a daily basis and working parents must schedule this into their daily routine. To qualify as a child minder you need only basis childcare qualifications, many childminders are mums themselves and often care for their own children at the same time as caring for yours. You pay per child and should expect to pay at least £5 per hour. No cleaning, laundry, babysitting included as she is not in your home.
An au pair is a young person on a cultural exchange program who enjoys helping with childcare/spending time with children. Most have some babysitting or childcare experience but you should expect to guide them through their responsibilities and duties in detail before they are able to do them with confidence as they are unlikely to have any formal training in childcare, but they may have a University degree instead! Unlike nannies, au pairs are also expected to assist with some light housework. Most families have a cleaner for the ‘heavy duties’ and an au pair who helps keep on top of things on a daily basis. Au pairs are ‘live-in’ so the family provides accommodation on a full board basis (all meals). As the au pair lives with you, you benefit from extra flexibility is you work shifts or run late from a meeting. You pay them pocket money, minimum recommended £70 per week for 25 hours + 2 evenings babysitting. An au pair is not an employee but ‘part of the family’. You should take time to talk with them and involve them in family activities to give them a chance to improve their English and experience ‘Britain’. Many au pairs remain friends of the family for years to come.
How much will it cost?
Expect to pay agency placement fees of £350 upwards for an agency who is a member of the British Au Pair Agency Association. Our agency charges extra for drivers but there are no additional charges for an ‘au pair plus’ who can do more hours. The au pair pays for the flight to the UK, you should budget the costs of airport collection. Accommodation and food costs can be calculated if you have a weekly food budget, au pairs are expected to eat what your family eats as part of 3 meals a day. Most families pay for a few extras also, such as a contribution towards a pay-as-you-go phonecard, a travelcard etc. A pediatric first aid course is also highly recommended. If your au pair needs to drive your children, expect to pay a few lessons at the beginning and ofcourse insurance and possibly breakdown cover. You can agree a contribution for personal mileage or give this as an extra.
Our au pair calculator gives you some idea of the costs to budget for:
Au pair preparation approx. (= one off)
· Agency fee £400-600
· Airport round-trip (own car) £30
· First Aid course £100
· Flight home for Christmas (optional extra)
· Preparation of bedroom (if applicable) £100
· Diving lessons (if applicable) £50
Au pair weekly costs (based on 25 hours + 2 x babysitting)
· Accommodation & full board £70 per week (based on food costs)
· Pocket money £70
· Contribution to language classes (optional extra) £30
· Mobile phone (optional extra) £10
· Travel card/petrol (optional extra) £30
· Car insurance (if applicable) £15-20, varies significantly from family to family, please always check with your insurance company prior to offering the role to an au pair.
How do I start the process?
We suggest all prospective host families to read as much general information as possible. The page ‘what is an au pair’ on our website www.smartaupairs.com is full of general information which really helps first time families. We have added it here in PDF format, making it easier to read at your leisure. The website of the British Au Pair Agency Association also contains helpful information. Once you decide that you may like more information, why not call our office for a chat. If you then feel confident, you can register online. Alternatively, you can start the registration process online and chat to us to ‘fill the gaps’ and answer any questions you may still have. It is very important to take your time and gather information as this is a big step. We always speak to all prospective families in detail before we commence the search for them. We also provide suggested interview questions to make the process easier.
Another thing we often recommend to first time host families who worry about having a person stay in their home is to consider a short term placement first. We have many host families who first had an au pair from us during the summer holidays before they decided on a long term au pair. This way you can also seek feedback from the first au pair to see what could work even better in future.
How do you find and check the au pairs?
We work with a network of reputable partners in various European partners. Each au pair candidate will be questioned and informed about the au pair program and what to expect in their native language, to avoid any misunderstandings. Au pair documents are screened and each au pair candidate needs to provide references, a police check and a medical report, these are checked by the agency in their home country who can verify that all information is complete and correct. This is where it really pays to use an agency. Not only will you receive complete information, you know that the candidate you are interviewing is prepared and committed, as they will have done a lot of ‘homework’ to prepare their profile for this process, unlike some of the online au pair websites, where it takes them only 5 minutes to register (and 5 minutes to change their mind too!)
What can I expect in terms of childcare experience? And language skills?
Most au pairs have some childcare experience, this can range from babysitting, sibling care or sometimes short term work experience in a nursery (especially our German au pairs often do this in preparation for the program). Some au pairs are training to be a teacher or may have helped our at sports clubs or summercamps, these experienced candidates are usually ‘snapped-up’ very quickly by our families! Many of our au pair candidates are educated people with good communication skills and eager to learn. We expect an au pair to be willing, rather than able to care for children when she/he first arrives. School age children however do not always require much experience, people skills and common sense goes a long way too.
The language skills vary but we always ensure at least basic spoken English. Many of our German and Scandinavian candidates speak really good English, you will be sure to be impressed when you interview them. Our French candidates are usually well educated and have learned English for a number of years. However, the French education system does not allow for much practice of spoken English, so their verbal language skills are usually more basic at the start but they pick it up very quickly as they have the knowledge of vocabulary and grammar already. You can always exchange e-mails and make sure all important information is also provided in writing. That way the au pair can check, with the dictionary if needed, that the information if fully understood.
How can I best prepare?
Preparation is the key to success. Here are the most critical points for preparation.
Before the au pair arrives:
· Extensive information exchange, the family profile and the au pair profile should be extensive and complete, additional questions can be answered by e-mail or phone throughout the process. Both parties need to be clear.
· A good interview (we provide suggested interview questions to make this easier)
· A written contract in advance to make sure all important information is agreed in writing (we provide a template)
· A handbook or written induction/instructions with detailed information for your au pair to help with training and guidance, explains the house rules and your family particulars. We provide an easy to use template in word format plus our newly developed appendix specially designed for first time families. It is vital to start as you mean to go on and for an au pair to know what is expected so that she/he can meet or possibly exceed your expectations.
The first few weeks of your au pair
· Training & induction with the use of the handbook. We also send out a welcome pack with lots of useful items for the au pair to get them started. Take your time (a week off work ideally) to explain in details ‘how it’s done’, from showing the schoolrun to sorting the laundry, there is a lot to take in for the au pair. Taking time to go through this together pays off later on when your au pair is capable and confident as a result. It is also a great way to get to know each other better.
· Communication and feedback; during the first few weeks, it is key to schedule meetings with your au pair to ensure all is well and iron out any minor issues or answer any further questions. We call all families and all au pairs to seek feedback and answer any questions. At any other time our staff is only too happy to answer any queries.
How long does it take to interview and organise?
Many families can start interviewing same day or next day after their telephone consultation with a member of our team. Occasionally, if you have very specific requirements, it may take a couple of days as we may need to contact agencies overseas to ensure we put candidates forward to suit your specific needs. The majority of our host families are able to confirm a candidate from the first shortlist of selected au pairs as we have many high caliber prospective candidates throughout the year.
For first time families we recommend that you arrange your au pair a few months in advance. However, we often get requests to help find an au pair quickly due to a chance in family circumstances for example. In that case we usually recommend to allow at least 2 weeks between the au pair accepting the position and the arrival date, partly because travel arrangements at short notice are very expensive and also due to the fact that the au pair needs to say goodbye to friends and family and prepare properly prior to arrival to avoid a hasty departure and a homesick au pair as a result. Sometimes we have au pairs already in Britain looking for a new host family. They are usually able to start a short notice.
This is the guide designed to be used in conjunction with for your handbook (issued by smartaupairs to their host families after confirmation of au pair placement)
It is designed to help first time families prepare in the best possible way for the arrival of their first au pair.
When you prepare the handbook, it is best to think SMART, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely.
Feedback from parents indicates that the more specific you are; the better results you will achieve together. If you are specific about what you need/want/expect from your au pair, it will allow the individual to meet your expectations and possibly even exceed them.
Writing a handbook also makes you realise how much there is to take in for the au pair, so please take your time to use a handbook together and provide a structured way to help your au pair get used to the routine.
Before au pair arrival
• Remember this is a cultural exchange program, be prepared to welcome your au pair as a member of the family. Instructions are needed to ensure responsibilities are clear but she is not an employee.
• Have a welcome gift ready for your au pair. Our agency supplies a very practical general welcome pack, however we rely on the host family to provide information that is relevant to your location and to your family. Maps (indicating important buildings near you such as GP, school etc.), college catalogue, drawings made by your children, a welcome letter written by an older child, a welcome sign for airport collection – get the children involved if they are old enough, they will enjoy this.
• Make sure you have a spare key to the house and maybe arrange a nice key ring
• Prepare a detailed and clear weekly schedule with children’s activities, au pair duties and meal suggestions and other important routines
• Make an au pair notebook, possibly a diary large enough to make daily notes for planning and feedback
• Make a card with all important telephone numbers, including instructions on calling 999 (we supply this in our welcome pack)
• For au pairs who need to drive: book lessons and get the Highway Code
• Prepare a list of fun activities that your au pair can do with the children and participate in some of those activities in the first couple of weeks (if your toddler likes feeding the ducks ant the au pair delights him doing this shortly after her arrival, this will associate the au pair with ‘fun’ rather then ‘stranger instead of mummy’)
• Prepare sample breakfast, lunch and dinner menus for the kids and be prepared to show the different food options in detail. For example, show the difference between preparation of breakfast sausages (grill or fry) and ‘hot-dog’ style sausages, the fried version is very British and not seen in many other countries but boiling them or microwaving may seem natural to a European person.
• Prepare your children for the au pair’s arrival, change is hard for them and they may be very sceptical at this stage. Talk to them about the au pair, show them pictures and ask them to help with preparation. (see above)
• Help the children understand in advance that the au pair will be a member of the family but ‘on equal footing’ with parents when it comes to instructions etc. Not listening to the au pair is the same as not listening to the parents.
• Have the house, the room and the bathroom ready for the au pair, again, involve children if possible even if it is just making the bed together and choosing a few toiletries. Decide in advance where you would like your au pair to put her ‘things’ especially in shared areas such as bathrooms, shoe racks, coat racks etc.
• Discuss with your partner about joint dinners. This is a time that many au pairs value as a great opportunity to speak English with adults, however a tired husband after a stressful day in the office may prefer the opposite. Plan for this and maybe agree a couple of nights a week where you ask the au pair to eat earlier with the children instead. (especially in Mediterranean countries, dinner is a real family ‘event’ and all sit together and spend time chatting)
Have all travel arrangements and the au pair’s collection been agreed and arranged? Have you both signed the contract.
Please keep in touch with your au pair to answer any last minute questions.
Au pair arrival (first weekend together)
We always recommend a weekend arrival, Friday afternoon or Saturday morning are ideal. After a rest from the journey, it gives the au pair a chance to meet all family members during leisure time. Try to dedicate this weekend to ‘introductions’ and keep it free from inviting other friends & family.
• Spend the weekend going through the handbook together
• Go through the weekly schedule and explain in detail about activities, duties, meals and routines
• Make sure the conversations with your au pair are about getting to know each other as well as ‘instructing her’ . Ask her about her family, friends and home town, let her show you pictures.
• Sit down and discuss important issues such as discipline and authority, these are subjects where it is vital to be clear and ‘start as you mean to go on’. Remember you need to empower your au pair to take responsibility over your children so that they do not
• Talk her through emergency services, how to dial 999 and ask if she has first aid training. Book a first aid course accordingly.
• The children may be very excited about the au pair arrival. Establish ‘private space’ and explain to both children and au pair that her bedroom should not be just that. Is should be used for her downtime and off limits to the children to ensure she has privacy.
• Present role-play-scenarios. An example: the kids won’t eat their dinner – what would you say/do? Not go to bed – not do their homework etc.
• If the au pair is driving the children, allow plenty of time for driving lessons, navigation and showing her how to put children in child seat/seatbelts etc.
• If the au pair is driving the children, allow plenty of time for driving lessons, driving practice, navigation and showing her how to put children in child seat/seatbelts etc. – explain all the car rules concerning your children and go through Highway code together (test). Discuss also parking (and parking tickets) never leaving children in the car alone, not even for a second
• Talk about her role within family responsibilities – such as unloading the dishwasher every day/ What should the children do and what should the au pair do (especially about the children’s bedrooms& laundry)
• Talk about general family responsibilities – everybody to tidy up after themselves, after a cup of tea you put your cup in the dishwasher etc. If you eat with the family on your day off it is nice to help prepare the food/table, not as a duty but as a member of the family.
• Show her the use of every appliance (dishwasher, cooker, washing machine, juicer) and let her use it to be sure it is clear.
• Show her what goes where (in the kitchen especially)
• Show her how you would like your laundry sorted, washed
• Agree telephone courtesy – when can she take incoming calls (some your people use the phone a lot!) we suggest not during work hours
• Help her with International dialing and let her call home. Agree how often and how long she can use your telephone for personal calls. Suggests she used internet to keep in touch and/or her own mobile (we issue all au pairs with a pay-as-you-go simcard which gives great value international calls)
• Agree internet use, when and what – downloading software, use of dating sites etc. showing pictures of your children – privacy & protection.
• Be sure to have a detailed written schedule for week 1 and week 2 and go through this together
• More role-play ‘what do you do when a stranger comes to the door?’ etc.
During the first week together
We strongly recommend week together at the start. It will give both of you a chance to get to know and trust each other and to feel confident about responsibility.
• Show her every task by doing it yourself first, letting her have a go with your supervision and then letting her do it in independently. Demonstrate, rather than explain – it will be so much clearer!
• Use the weekly schedule throughout this week; demonstrate, explain and adjust where needed.
• Organise some simple family events that you can do together and are easy for her to repeat once she is on her own, for example a trip to feed the ducks, a trip to the swimming pool etc.
• Take her food shopping and get some food she likes too. Maybe she can cook certain dishes already, get started with those, it may surprise you.
• Have educational goals set for each child and possibly reward charts. If her presence is linked to the opportunity for your children to shine and be recognized for their good behaviour and achievements, it will help the bonding process.
• Have at least one family meal together and simply have ‘small talk’
• Cook a couple of simple meals together and show her how to prepare the basic foods that your children like.
• Introduce your au pair to neighbours, school mums and the local area.
• Give plenty of opportunity to practice driving and local navigation.
• Agree car usage including personal use, cleanliness, and distances from home the car may be taken to.
• Teach your au pair what to do in case of a powercut and also cover more serious emergencies to ensure she has remembered.
During the first month together
During the first month it is very important to have regular feedback meetings without interruption from children. Have your au pair bring 1-2 things to talk about to the meeting.
• Ask if she needs to open a bank account, offer assistance if required.
• Ask if she wants to enroll into English courses, offer assistance if required.
• Review the weekly schedule together
• Review the relationship of the au pair regarding each child. Ask what the most difficult things are about each of your children for your au pair. Help them find a solution.
• Encourage your au pair to meet other young people and plan some day trips together for weekends to show her some of sights
• Make lots of lists and have them on view for au pair and children to help the au pair during the day. If any of the tasks are not yet done the way you require, offer to make a ‘step-by-step’ list for this task and demonstrate once more.
• Talk, talk, talk, communication is the key to a successful au pair experience.
Go to Smartaupairs website: http://www.smartaupairs.com/