For a sector that is really quite small (an estimated 7% of UK families with children up to the age of 16, say they have have hosted an Au Pair in 2019-2020*), the idea of Au Pairs as a solution to childcare for working families, has been for many years an affordable luxury that many families have sought and relished. For some, it has been an affordable necessity, as other childcare solutions have been too costly or have not fitted personal circumstances. According to our survey, among families using them, 72% think Au Pairs are an affordable solution. When Au pair placements work well, they are a godsend, particularly for busy professionals with young families. Sometimes, they are the only option (24% in our survey said it was the only option open to them). Another 52% opted for the Au Pair route because it was the best fit for their working arrangements.
From Cultural Exchange to Childcare Necessity
By contrast, the benefit of cultural or educational benefits of hosting an Au Pair, was only cited by 9% of Au Pair families. This is a crucial point that illustrates how the use of Au Pairs has changed. Arguably, 30 years ago, Au Pairs may have been hosted during summer holidays, partly to help families over the extended holiday, but partly as an ideal of cultural enrichment. Now the situation is reversed: cultural exchange is valued, but the decision to host an au pair is driven largely by work and financial necessity, allowing families to work.
How Big is the Au Pair sector in the UK?
How significant is the au pair sector in the UK is very difficult to quantify definitively as there are no official figures to refer to. An academic study (Birbeck, University of London) estimated there were 90,000 Au Pairs in the UK in 2014, but it is unclear on how this figure was calculated. Our surveys suggest the figure is significantly higher in 2019-2020. A survey conducted among BAPAA agencies shows significant growth in the numbers of Au pairs placed in subsequent years after 2014. In addition, our independent survey of parents with children up to the age of 16, indicated that around 7% of families were hosting an Au Pairs 2019-2020).
Office of National Statistics data for 2018 record there were 19.1 million families overall, while there were 8 million families with dependent children. On that basis there could be several hundred thousand families hosting au pairs (potentially between 400,000 – 560,000). Given that freedom of movement has allowed thousands of European nationals to travel to the UK, it is almost impossible to determine how many au pairs there are. In our view, it is likely to be considerably higher than 90,000. What can be in little doubt is that there are thousands of families in the UK that depend on the UK Au Pair sector.
Brexit and the End of Au Pairs in the UK
Brexit has already had an impact on the numbers of Au pairs staying in the UK, with some Europeans choosing not to come to the UK following the 2016 referendum. Travel disruption, as a result of Covid 19, has further impacted the supply of Au pairs. Even so, there can be little doubt that thousands of families in the UK depend on tens of thousands of young people coming to the UK every year. Their contribution allows hard working families to juggle that difficult balance between work and family life.
But from 1st January 2021, after the UK has left the EU and has ended so the called transition period, it is looking like these families will no longer be able to legally use Au Pairs as a childcare solution.
Campaign to Save Au Pairs
Of course, there are many sectors in the UK that is likely to be impacted by Brexit: fruit pickers, social care, hospitality and Universities. However, most of these sectors are bigger than the Au Pair sector. Immigration rules are under review, and new rules already allow for lower paid workers in areas of shortage. The University sector is campaigning for the continuation of students from Europe. The Au Pair sector too, has a Saveouraupairs campaign. So far, this campaign has been unable to persuade the Government to make a special case for Au Pairs. The official guidance is that from January 2021 it will not be legal to arrange for an Au Pair to stay with a family in the UK as a tourist. But there is no other legal route for an Au Pair to stay.
The British Au Pair Association (BAPAA) have not given up. They have been actively trying to engage with the UK Government to lobby for the programme, both as a cultural programme that has increasing relevance for the UK after Brexit, if the UK is to remain a county open to the outside world. It has also tried to emphasise Au pairs importance to working families. They have proposed that the Government introduce a formal Au Pair visa programme to ensure the sector is legal, controlled and both family and Au Pairs are offered a safe way to come to the UK. In our survey, 79% of families support the idea of an official Au Programme allowing young people to stay for up to two year. BAPAA also suggested a two year student visa which would allow Au Pairs to study. This route has also been closed off.
So, for the moment, the UK Government has effectively ended the Au Pair programme. It is true that European nationals who have opted to take the right to remain status, will be able to stay in the UK to work, study and possibly to remain as Au Pairs. But all new Au Pairs coming to the UK from January 2021 will no longer be able to come. It’s still possible that a new post-Brexit arrangement for young people from Europe to come to the UK to study and be an Au Pair is a medium term prospect, perhaps as part of a future trade deal. There could also be scope to invite other young people from other parts of the world to study and stay with families. But, at the moment this looks highly unlikely. Many families are unaware that the option to host an au pair is about to abruptly come to an end. So for now, its au revoir au pairs!
Based on a survey of 997 parents with children aged up to 16, conducted by Surveygoo on behalf of the British Au Pair Agency Association, August 2020. The data was weighted to be representative of families across UK regions and by household income.