The au pair exchange programme that has been running in Kent since the 1950s has had the door shut in its face – firmly. Are working families now realising how the invaluable childcare offered by au pairs has effectively gone post Brexit and amid Covid-19?
Au pair student exchanges
In the nineties, young people between 18 and 26 were offered the opportunity to come to the UK as au pairs, with a student visa which allowed them to work for up to 25 hours a week. British students could also become au pairs in mainland Europe. This was meant to be a student exchange to help people learn the local language and be part of a family.
Au pairs were expected to attend English classes and, in exchange for a small pay, to lend the family a hand with light house work and child care duties. There was a huge demand from families who could not afford a full-time paid nanny, but needed support in order to allow single parents or both parents to work.
There was also a large supply of applicants from Central European students that had just finished school or university and wanted to improve their English, while at the same time experience the British way of life as a guest in a host family.
My first au pair placement
While doing my twice weekly shopping in Sevenoaks, opposite the Railway station, my attention was drawn to two young women speaking in Hungarian. Typically, there were few Hungarians living in Sevenoaks.
One of women seemed distressed and I decided to ask them if there was something wrong. They informed me that they were au pairs placed with families in Sevenoaks; one of the au pairs was very unhappy with her situation, as her host family had three pre-school children and both parents worked in their own bakery.
The au pair was expected to work from seven in the morning when the parents left, until around 6 in the evening, including on Saturdays. I knew that this was not a legal use of an au pair and I invited the girls for coffee at my nearby home; the au pair that was dissatisfied with her situation came to stay with me until we sorted out her situation and found her another family.
Her new placement was a success, where she worked the legally stipulated 25 hours a week and had time to attend language classes. What started as a one-off au pair placement ended up with me setting up my own au pairs agency in Sevenoaks.
Au pairs after the EU expansion of 2004
When in 2004 several Central European countries joined the EU, freedom of movement made becoming an au pair easier. I matched at least 100 young people in Kent with families. In the majority of cases the placements were a success for both sides. Detailed checks of the families and the au pairs were carried out, including personal interviews and police checks in order to best match the au pairs’ abilities and talents with the families’ expectations.
My agency no longer runs, but I am still in touch with several former au pairs, now men and women, that I had brought to the UK. Their experiences here had a profound impact on their future. Many formed close friendships with their host families and some continue to visit them in their home countries. At one of the au pair meetings and outings, a young couple formed a relationship which eventually led to a happy marriage with three children.
Their English proficiency provided them with better job prospects at home, while the host families benefited greatly from child care offered by well-educated young people. They also expanded their horizon by learning about life in the au pairs’ home countries. A win-win situation.
Au pairs after Brexit
When the UK left the EU in 2020, I expected that the government would make arrangements for the au pair system to continue. I still receive inquiries from young people and parents on social media, so I decided to call a few agencies in Kent. To my astonishment, it proved quite difficult to contact any of the numerous agencies listed online. Some numbers were unavailable and some simply went to voicemail. After two days of calling around, at last I had a conversation with Denise who owned a Sevenoaks au pair agency and language school.
Denise offered to write to explain why her businesses had to close due to Brexit:
“Government Information is very scarce, and probably with intention as this programme has just been made unusable since 1st January 2021. For families, who work irregular hours, having an Au Pair in the house has been the only way to make childcare affordable.
It is a misconception that an Au Pair is for the wealthy. Doctors, nurses, journalists, shift workers, large families, civil servants, in fact anyone who has a job might all need help with childcare as their working shifts are often irregular.
My Au Pair Agency has been running since 1997 and over the years has placed hundreds of fantastic people with host families. Since 31st December 2020 we have placed not a single person with a family and we are not likely to either.
This is because there is no viable legal way for an Au Pair to come to the UK from the EU without having pre-settled status, British citizenship or access to the Youth Mobility Scheme. The latter only applies to countries like Australia, Canada and NZ, though understandably that route has slowed because of the pandemic. There is a route via them applying for a skilled worker visa but that basically means Au Pairs becoming an employee to the host family, pushing up the cost to the point that you might as well hire a trained nanny instead.”