Why being self-employed can be best for SEND parenting
I once heard someone say parenting and running a business is like trying to catch a ball while standing in a hammock without spilling your wine. If your child has special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) then also tie one hand and behind your back and you’ve got a pretty good picture.
As we approach the summer holidays, and begin to plan how we will manage kids, family time and work I remind myself just how lucky we are to have the flexibility of self employment - even if it is a juggling act at times.
My eldest daughter Scarlett was born seven years ago with Down syndrome, a couple of holes in her heart requiring surgery and the cutest smile you’ve ever seen.
It was clear from day one that I wouldn’t be able to manage my very big London finance job alongside the various medical and therapy appointments she needed to attend. More than that, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to squeeze mumming in around my work commitment. I didn’t want to hire a Nanny. I’d waited a long time to be a mum, I didn’t want to miss it. Any of it.
So we decided to start our own business. Eek!
In the beginning I started out part-time, with a handful of clients, from my kitchen table. Simon was involved from the start but only part-time. To keep a steady income coming into the household, he kept his full-time job for the first couple of years. This gave us some financial stability by ensuring we weren’t reliant on one source of income. However, by the end of the first two years, we really needed us both to be hands-on in the business; it had really started to grow and we just had our second child, Katie, so he made the jump too!
We’ve learnt quite a bit in the last seven years about starting a business, growing a business and keeping on top of our family business too. If you are also a SEND parent… then I hope some of our experiences here might help you too.
The Benefits of Being a Self-Employed SEND Parent
It can be difficult for SEND parents to access employment due to the extra time and support their children often need. Few employers offer the flexibility needed and childcare can be difficult to find if your child has complex needs, particularly as they get to school age and older.
Self employment is often the answer and these are the benefits we reckon make it worthwhile:
Working flexible hours around medical, therapy and school appointments
Working from home around childcare
Growing the business to a size that fits your family, remaining part-time if that works best
Not requiring permission from your boss for time off or needing to make calls at work etc.
Ability to relocate to access specialist support services
There are of course some downsides to this too and it would be irresponsible of us not to bring these to your attention:
Perhaps not earning enough at the start
No statutory sick pay or pension contributions
No company support network or structure
Very little daily social interaction - your only colleague might be the cat for a while!
In the end you just have to weigh up what matters the most to you and your family. What are your priorities and which type of employment will support them?
Managing Working Hours
Balancing working hours with family life as a self-employed business owner is pretty complex for every parent. It is the added ‘surprise’ element of life as a SEND parent that adds the frisson of tension. So my advice here is to expect the unexpected at any given time.
OK, that’s a bit glib but in reality it means although we plan out a week with potential client meetings and scheduling work, we always allow for one of us to possibly have to drop out at any time to deal with a medical situation or even a temper tantrum (the kids, not Simon).
Our hours are flexible, but in reality that can mean some late nights after the kids are in bed if we have had to be parents during the day.
Having a clear understanding of what is urgent, what is important and what is urgent AND important helps to prioritise workload. We know what the HMRC deadlines are and ensure no client ever misses them if its down to us.
Keeping communication clear with clients and maintaining boundaries works well for all parties involved and we have found that it has ensured mutually beneficial and respectfull relationships. Who knew?
Sometimes we answer emails late at night but are clear that it’s because it suits our schedule but do not expect others to work the same odd hours.
Managing Finances as a Self-Employed SEND Parent
This is probably the most terrifying aspect for most SEND parents as they consider whether or not to embark on self-employment. I suppose that being an accountant did help me to navigate this aspect with a little less fear, but nonetheless there was and still is a lot to consider. But it’s all manageable if you do the research and understand what additional financial support you are entitled to from the start.
Here are a few pointers to help you out:
Disability living allowance (DLA)
This is not means tested and is provided in the name of your disabled child at a rate according to their level of need. It is meant to help with the extra costs of being disabled such as petrol and parking for hospital appointments, additional washing or heating, shoes (my daughter needs super supportive shoes that can accommodate orthotic inserts - these are not cheap!) and a whole host of other unexpected additional costs.
You can earn £128 per week without losing your Carers Allowance. Remember, if you are self employed this is profit after deducting business expenses so do not just take the income figure here.
You can claim VAT relief on the purchase of certain items. Here’s a couple of government website with all the details:
Vehicle Tax Exemption
You can apply for exemption from paying vehicle tax if you get the:
higher rate mobility component of Disability Living Allowance (DLA)
enhanced rate mobility component of Personal Independence Payment (PIP)
The vehicle must be registered in the disabled person’s name or their nominated driver’s name and it must only be used for the disabled person’s personal needs. It cannot be used by the nominated driver for their own personal use.
Budgeting is important for everyone, but if you are self-employed it is key. A budget can be a simple spreadsheet or more complicated software and allows you to plan for the coming weeks and months. Include your regular client income and regular overheads and then add in variable income and costs. Always put money away each month towards your tax bill and also to cover those months when you do not work as much.
Direct Payments for Respite (also known as “Short Breaks”)
A small pot of money can be available from your local council to pay for respite so that you and your family can get a bit of a break. This can be spent on activities for your child or childcare so that you can have some time to yourself or with your other children. You cannot use it for childcare to work but getting those all important breaks is important to be able to keep all those balls in the air.
Self employment means no access to a company pension scheme. However, we strongly recommend paying into a private scheme in order to plan for your retirement. The payments can be used to reduce your personal tax bill if you are a sole trader or to reduce your corporation tax if you work through a limited company. Talk to a qualified pensions advisor to make sure you chose the best scheme for your personal circumstances.
Planning for the Future
While it’s horrible to think about, SEND parents often worry more about their children’s future and have a few extra considerations when thinking “what happens when we’re no longer here”.
Mencap provides a great Wills and Trust guide and can help you find a solicitor with specialist knowledge. We went through this process a few years ago, and knowing our children will be taken care of financially if the worst were to happen has given us great peace of mind.
Working Families is the UK’s work-life balance charity. They provide some really helpful general advice for working parents of disabled children.
Growing A Successful Business as a SEND Parent
So starting a business and growing a business are a bit different. Growing the business is about finding the right balance of getting bigger and increasing your income, without tipping the scales over into an unmanageable workload. As a SEND parent it is not our goal to have a multi-million pound international accountancy business. We’ll leave that to PWC or EY. We’re very content to be in our niche, but we are not without ambition. Growth allows us to be financially secure and keeps our business stable because there is a natural eb and flow of clients over time.
It also means we can and need to adjust when and how we grow in order to remain flexible to the changing needs of our family. It will probably never be the case that my responsibilities as a parent for Scarlett will lessen - my daughter will never be able to walk home from school on her own, I will always have to be here for her. She continues to need close supervision now that she is taller and physically more able but doesn’t understand she shouldn’t try to cook dinner or clean the toilet (with my best hand towels!). School holiday clubs generally do not cater for disabled children and the older she gets the harder it is to find adequate childcare for her.
BUT her needs have and will differ over time and so far we’ve been able to adapt our business and it’s growth around that, which has sometimes involved not growing for a period of time too. And what’s great is that we’re not under any pressure from investors or anyone else to do it any differently.
So how have we managed this? A little bit by trial and error I suppose, but these are some key aspects that we’ve learnt and kept along the way:
We choose our clients carefully - we work with people that fit in with the way we need to work and they tend to work that way too. Honestly that tends to be business owners with families of their own and we are of course particularly drawn to SEND parents/business owners because we GET IT and can offer the support they need too.
We’re also pretty happy to move away quickly from clients that do not have good ethics or are unpleasant to work with. This surprises a lot of people but life is pretty demanding for us, so early on we decided that we only want to work with people that are nice to work with. It really makes a massive difference to our day!
We also use a lot of tools and systems that help to streamline our systems and enable us to work with clients and suppliers in a more remote and efficient way.
Some of these include:
Google docs and sheets for communication with our outsourced marketing agency
Mailchimp for email marketing/client newsletters
Giving up our separate office and creating a home office space
Xero accounting software - we are now a 100% cloud based accountancy practice
Zoom instead of face to face meetings
Focus on a key target market as clients instead of ‘everyone’ or ‘anyone’
A Client portal for clients to access their docs and esign
Cloud based systems so we can work anywhere and at times of our choosing
The pandemic over the last 18 months has really expedited some of these changes but we’ve pretty much got most of our online and cloud based systems down now. We’ve saved a lot of unnecessary time and money in doing so too. We’ve had to embrace some big changes quickly, but necessity is the mother of all invention, right?
Self-Employment Saved Our SEND Family
We’ve come a long way since Scarlett was born, the business has grown and developed beyond anything I had dared hoped for.
Scarlett is now a healthy, happy seven year old who loves to dance, swim, ride her bike and get into mischief with her little sister Katie
We can manage the school run, be available for christmas plays and sports days and if either one of them has a sick day we can easily work around that.
But the fundamental reasons for starting out on my own remain. I have been able to continue my career, ensure my family’s financial stability and still meet all of the extra responsibilities that come with SEND parenting whilst running a successful business. All of this shows Scarlett and Katie quite how much is possible.
We hope you’ve found this article helpful. It’s tough being self-employed and being parents. It’s really tough being self-employed and being SEND parents. But with the right people behind you, then it can be really rewarding for your family to run your own business. If we can do it, you can too!
If you are not 100% satisfied with how your accountant supports you, then please drop us a line and see how we can help you.
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