The government is promoting registered childminding as key to delivery of its planned 30 hours of free early education for eligible children. So you would expect the 45,000 registered childminders who are providing high quality care and early learning to be celebrating? Sadly most are not.
With the numbers working in childminding declining every year, it is critical government gets implementation of its "free childcare" offer right. If they do, many childminding businesses will be sustainable and more families will benefit from this highly flexible, personalised form of quality childcare.
Get it wrong and, just like nurseries and pre-schools, childminders will struggle to stay in business and families will miss out on the childcare support they so desperately need to return to work and give their children a great start.
In many parts of the country, lots of childcare settings including the vast majority of childminders do not deliver the current 15 hours of free early education all 3- and 4- year olds receive. Increasing this to 30 hours for eligible children will only make matters worse.
A number of barriers need to be removed for most childcare providers to support the offer. Fees are too low to sustain their small businesses; burdensome and unreliable local authority payment and administration systems are core challenges Government must overcome. However the childminding profession has extra, unique barriers. If they aren't removed it will remain the case that just 13% of childminders will deliver free entitlement.
With government currently in consultation overdrive as it starts to test out early implementation of this offer, PACEY has made clear there are five steps it needs to take to ensure childminders are truly at the heart of delivery of its 30 hours offer:
1) A fair fee - one that supports delivery of a quality service for children, not a fee so below the market rate it makes childminding businesses unsustainable
2) Improved administration - local authorities that pay the correct amount, on time without excessive red-tape and understand the impact delayed payments can have on small businesses with limited cash flow
3) Promote childminding- too often local authorities, children's centres and health visitors only focus on sessional and day care as the places parents can gain their free entitlement
4) Support for business development - cuts in public spending have reduced local authority capacity to help childminders consider growing their business through delivering the free entitlement in partnership with pre-schools or employing assistants. Impartial advice, partnership brokerage and encouragement are needed to make this a reality
5) Receive payment for related children - last but not least most childminders enter the profession to care for their own children or related children alongside others. Currently they can't use their free early education for their related children even though they are delivering the same care and learning that other children in their setting receive, and using up their places to do so. If you work in a nursery you can use your free early education in that nursery. This anomaly remains a significant barrier to free entitlement delivery being viable for many childminders.
My last point is controversial - it usually leads to a heated debate around whether government should be paying parents to parent. At PACEY we don't see it that way - childminders aren't just caring for their own children, but for many unrelated children too. Registered childminders are inspected on how well they deliver the Early Years Foundation Stage to all their children, whether they are related to them or not. The current situation means most don't bother delivering the free entitlement. Those that do end up having to send their 3 or 4 year old child to another childminder or nursery just to access their free early education.
Instead, with a simple change to guidance, government could ensure childminders can access free entitlement for related children, as long as they are caring for at least two unrelated children at the same time. Ensuring a valuable community service is available for more families rather than further risking childminding sustainability.
So, five challenges that could ensure childminding plays an integral part in free early education and remains a high quality childcare option for families. But we are concerned at PACEY that the opportunity to tackle this is being missed by government. Their early implementation of the 30 hours offer has started but has placed too much reliance on a handful of untested childminder agencies to support childminder engagement in delivery. This is despite continued childminder concern around the agency approach. A change of tactic is urgently needed so that these barriers are removed.
Things could be so much better. Government has the chance of a lifetime to resolve these five challenges and support more families so they can combine high quality childminding with a nursery or pre-school, and get the best of both worlds for their child.