Childcare costs frequently hit the headlines in the media, with childminders and other childcare providers portrayed as making healthy profits at the expense of hard-working families.
The reality is somewhat different.
Instead we have a sector of dedicated, trained professionals who offer a high quality service to families, yet are among the lowest paid in the UK.
Indeed according to Government figures released just last week, the average total income of a childminder in the UK is just £10,100. Not quite an eye-watering salary.
The results of PACEY's second annual Building Blocks survey of almost 2,000 early years practitioners across England paints a picture of a workforce under strain. A sector poised to respond to the significant challenge of the doubling of the free education entitlement for working parents of 3- and 4-year-olds in September.
According to Government figures, only 1% of 3- and 4-year-olds who are taking up a free place, do so with a childminder. Whilst the Building Blocks research shows that the main reason why childminders do not currently offer funded places is the low funding rate, it also shows that nearly half (49%) of childminders said that they didn't offer funded places because no parent had asked for one.
It seems that despite being registered with Ofsted and delivering a curriculum just like nurseries and pre-schools, many parents don't know they can access funded childcare places from a childminder and many local authorities are failing to embrace childminding as part of their local childcare offer.
Figures from the Department for Education (DfE) suggest that an additional 90,000 places will be needed for 3- and 4-year-olds, when the 30 hours policy is rolled out in September. And last week, it was reported that two-thirds of local authorities do not believe there will be enough childcare in their area for eligible families.
We need to encourage parents to choose childminding as an option for their funded hours, but also to encourage more childminders to offer funded hours, and ultimately to retain childminding in our childcare system.
PACEY's research shows that 50% of childminders have at least one unfilled place that they would like to fill.
If just one of those places could be used to offer a funded place to a 3- or 4-year-old, this would approximate to quarter of the extra places needed.
One thing that is clear from the Building Blocks survey is that childcare practitioners are committed individuals who find their job hugely rewarding.
Indeed nearly all (96%) of respondents said they found working in childcare and early years rewarding. One early years practitioner who completed the survey said: "Children are magical and never predictable. It's the best job in the world and it's a privilege to be trusted to be part of their world".
So why are we risking losing these driven and passionate individuals?
Ofsted figures state that 91% of childminders are rated as good and outstanding in England and they offer a unique community based early education.
Childminding is a 'win-win' for children, parents and employers too. Children get high quality care; parents get the flexible childcare they need to work and employers benefit from that flexibility too. More needs to be done to encourage more people to join this rewarding profession.
But the early years sector has already lost 13,400 registered childminders over the past 4 ½ years. 43% of childminders responding to our survey said a shortage of work would be the main catalyst for them leaving the sector.
We know that inadequate pay and removal of support from the local authority for training and development are other reasons why childminders are considering quitting.
Last week early years workers in Australia went on strike to protest against the continued level of low pay. How long can we count on the goodwill and commitment of early years professionals up and down the country to offer the high quality childcare that children deserve - particularly with the underfunding of the sector that is likely to escalate to crisis with 30 hours?
The next few months are set to be critical for the sector, as providers firm up their response to 30 hours and eligible parents decide where they will take up their entitlement. Government needs to act now to ensure that the funding rate for the early years and childcare entitlement is sustainable for all providers.
More needs to be done to raise parental awareness of the vital role childminders can play in early education, and local authorities need to do more to support and promote childminding as a high quality, flexible home-based service to parents.
If action is not taken, come September, families will lose out - as will childminders. More childminders will leave the sector, which will have a devastating impact on parental choice.
Now is the time to choose childminding, before it's too late.Suggest a correction