(Editor’s note: This is the final installment in our series on Berlin’s Kita crisis. You can see the links to Parts 1 thru 3 below.)
If you’re the parent of a young child living in Berlin, you’ll already know that finding a Kita place has become something of a nightmare. If the number one item on your baby’s first Birthday wish list is a Kita place, you may want to keep reading!
In the wake of the current shortage of places, and until there exists a centralised transparent system for applying to Kitas, it’s important that parents understand the nuances of the current system and how they can maximise their options for finding their child a place.
So to complete our series looking at Berlin’s Kita crisis, we’ve created this guide to help parents navigate the somewhat chaotic Kita application system with additional information about what you can do when there are no available Kita places in your area.
Understand the Kita system and parental rights
It’s important to make sure you understand the basics of the system and know your rights. For those who understand German (or are using a browser with a translate option), here is the official information from the Senate department for youth, education, and family about Kitas, alternative childcare options, parents’ rights, and how to apply.
There are also several helpful guides available in English that explain the Kita system in Berlin, as well as alternative childcare options. Expath recently produced a series of free online video workshops explaining the system and how to apply. Also see this description of the childcare options available in Berlin from the blog, Berlin for All the Family as well as their guide for how to apply for a Kita place.
In short: All children over the age of one year old are entitled to a Kita place or recognised alternative. And Kita places are free of charge to parents, who are issued Kita Gutschein (childcare vouchers) by their local Jugendamt (youth office).
Find and apply to Kitas
After applying for a Kita Gutschein via your local Jugendamt, as per the instructions in the guides listed above, it’s time to research the Kitas in your area and apply to as many as you can. There are lots of ways to find Kitas in your area. As well as searching the official directory, you can use the search function on your maps app, walk your area and note Kitas nearby, or ask other parents in your area.
Unfortunately, since there is no central application system in Berlin, parents have to apply to each Kita individually, and every Kita has a slightly different application format and process. This is, unfortunately, a considerable time-consuming – but ultimately necessary – process.
A large number of Kitas will not accept applications from children until after they are born. However, there are Kitas that will accept applications during pregnancy. If you are aware you need a place around or before your child’s first birthday, it is wise to start researching your local Kitas as soon as possible, even before your child is born.
Once you have submitted an application, the Kita will usually contact you to tell you if a place is available and/or whether they will add you to their waiting list. If you don’t get a response from a Kita you are interested in, don’t be afraid to follow up with them.
What’s the deal with waiting lists?
So in a waiting list of a hundred or more families, how do you make your application stand out? Or perhaps the first question should rather be: Do waiting lists mean anything? Well, the answer is a not-so-decisive “yes” and “no.”
Yes, in that you do usually need to have previously submitted a formal application and been added to the list in order to be considered for a place. No, in that places don’t tend to be handed out purely on a first-come, first-served basis. Waiting lists are not queues, and the length of time you’ve been on the list often has no bearing on whether or not you’ll be offered a place before someone who joined the list after you. This can obviously be very frustrating when you’ve been on a waiting list for months, and other families appear to be “skipping the queue.”
In most cases, spots are given firstly to siblings of children already at the Kita; secondly, to those who fit best with the balance of age, sex, and languages within the Kita; and thirdly, to families who make a good impression and fit in with the ethos of the Kita.
This means you need to make yourself memorable. Look for opportunities to show up in person without disturbing the daily operations of the Kita. Attend open days or call to request an appointment (be sure not to call at inconvenient times such as within an hour of the Kita’s opening time or between 11:30 and 13:30 when you might disturb lunch or nap time).
Research the Kita’s pedagogy and approach to childcare. Make sure you’re able to demonstrate you have a basic understanding of their pedagogy and you’re able to state what you like about their approach and how it fits with your own approach to raising your child.
Some parents recommend submitting a photograph of your child or a family photograph along with your application. Some Kitas even request them.
Although it might seem strange to be asked for a picture of your child or family when applying for a childcare place, there is logic in providing one. It helps to distinguish your application from the hundreds of others just like it, and helps the Kita to remember to whom the application belongs, particularly if you have previously visited the Kita in person. Names are often much easier to forget than faces!
And, of course, send occasional follow-up emails to let the Kita know you’re still interested in a place.
Need help? Outsource your search to professionals, or use your “vitamin B”
There are numerous relocation consultants as well as other agencies set up to help expats (and Germans) with matters such as securing a childcare place, and they can on take a great deal of the time-consuming legwork for you.
Examples include: Expath, an agency offering expats relocation assistance and German language classes; Maternita, a “Maternity concierge and baby planner” that offers parents direct assistance with their childcare search, as well as workshops helping parents to improve their own independent search; And Juniko, an agency set up entirely to help parents find a Kita place, offering not only to apply to Kitas on parents’ behalf, but also to provide parents with legal assistance in cases where no place is available.
However, this particular suggestion comes with a caveat: professionals can only help to an extent. They cannot find places that don’t exist, and they cannot make that all important personal impression on your behalf. What they can do is help parents find Kitas that match their specifications, assist with submitting applications, and follow up with the Kita regularly on the parents’ behalf.
One consultant from Expath advised that, currently, the length of time involved in a Kita search is so long that standard relocation packages often expire before the search is over. In this case, the best (and sometimes only) way they can help their clients is to help them create a search plan and teach them how to continue their search independently after their relocation services end.
The co-founder of Maternita also explained that, at times, they have “had to turn people away because we don’t want to take people’s hard earned cash if we know that there’s simply no spots that meet their criteria.” She adds: “Bear in mind we started by supporting our clients who didn’t really speak German and didn’t understand the daycare system. We now have many German speakers approaching us for support with their search for a daycare for their child.”
It would seem that, at this point, even the professionals are overwhelmed.
Another way you might be able to seek outside help is from friends whose children already attend one of your chosen Kitas. This is what Germans refer to as “Vitamin B,” which means to make use of your Beziehung (relationships). If you know someone who already has a place within a Kita on your short list, ask them to enquire on your behalf. Or have them tell the Kita to expect your application. You might also tag along one afternoon when they collect their child, to perhaps give you the opportunity for a brief introduction.
It may also help to get your employers involved. There are a few cases of deals being brokered between larger Kita groups making arrangements with companies to offer preference to the children of their employees.
It’s been suggested this may be something that will begin to happen more frequently as employers negotiate access to childcare in order to avoid losing their valued staff to unplanned parental leave. We might also see a situation where employers become involved in the opening of Kitas and creating alternative childcare options.
Get to know your local Jugendamt
If you’re finding your Kita search isn’t yielding results, you should notify the Jugendamt you are unable to find a place. You will need to contact the relevant office for your neighbourhood.
Whilst it is possible your local Jugendamt will be able to assist you in finding a place, they are, of course, unable to allocate children places when they are simply unavailable, as is currently the case in many areas of Berlin. Nonetheless, this is an important step to enable you to potentially claim compensation for alternative childcare or take further legal action should you choose to do so.
Before you’re able to apply for any compensation or take further legal action, you must first demonstrate there are no places available to your child. This means both you and the Jugendamt have been unable to find a place (any place) for your child within a 30-minute commute of your home.
Note that this could be in the opposite direction of your place of work or study. If you are offered a place, and you choose to turn it down, you cannot claim any alternate compensation.
This obviously puts parents in the difficult situation of having to accept places that are inconveniently located or do not meet their desired specifications.
It’s a far cry from the system centered around offering choices to parents the city originally envisaged.
At present, the Jugendamt can, under certain circumstances, reimburse the costs of alternative private childcare if parents are still unable to find a place after exhausting all options. These compensatory payments are available without taking legal action.
However, it seems not all Jugendamt offices are forthcoming with this information, and it is something parents need to request (or insist) upon.
These compensatory payments are available for children over the age of one and cannot exceed the amount usually paid by the Jugendamt to finance a Kita place. Parents should be aware the costs associated with finding individual private childcare are likely higher than financing a Kita place, which will likely mean they still need to pay a portion their childcare costs themselves.
What are the alternatives to Kitas?
There are several alternatives to Kitas, including private options and options that can be paid for with your Kita Gutschein.
Tagesmüttern (childminders), are one popular option for children under three years old and can be paid for using your Kita Gutschein. However, places are often as difficult to find as Kita spots.
Nannies or au pairs are other private options. Whilst au pairs are the more affordable option of the two, keep in mind that in order to host an au pair, you are usually required to speak German as the main language at home since the au pair arrangement is expected to allow au pairs to experience and immerse themselves into German culture.
Private nannies are an expensive option but may be more affordable if you “share” with another family. There are nanny agencies that assist parents to find a nanny as well as consultants such as Maternita, who advertise assistance in finding a nanny, childminder, babysitter or emergency childcare.
Co-working spaces with childcare are also becoming increasingly popular in Berlin for those who are able to work away from their offices or usual place of work. Jugglehub and Le Box are two frequently recommended options.
Join the campaign to improve the system
Given the situation, there are also many parents (with and without Kita places) and other invested parties wondering what they can do to help the campaign to improve the Kita situation in Berlin.
Those wanting to follow or get involved with the Kitakrise movement should subscribe to their Facebook page, and visit their website. As well as continuing to campaign for change, they also aim to make their organisation a portal to provide parents information (in multiple languages) about the system and how to navigate it as the situation evolves. So stay tuned!
You can also sign the petition created by Christine Kroke.
And, of course, you can voice your concerns! As one parent we interviewed urged: “Send letters. Write to your local members. Write to the minister for families. Write to Angela Merkel!” (Yes, I really did do that.)
Happy hunting, and viel Glück.
About the author:
Laura Kaye is a freelance writer, researcher and editor. Her work focuses on social and development issues, parenting and family life.
Originally from the Wirral in the United Kingdom, she is a serial expat now happily living in Berlin, Germany.
More posts by Laura Kay