Childcare minister to meet with sector to discuss pilot of childminder agencies

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Elizabeth Truss is to meet with early years organisations and childminders next month to discuss the Government's pilot of childminder agencies.

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The education and childcare minister has 'reached out' to the UK Childminding Association (UKCMA) to help facilitate the meeting, which will take place at the House of Commons in mid February.

Early years organisations, including the Pre-School Learning Alliance, Independent Childminders Social Enterprise (ICM-SE) and the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, have been invited to attend. News of the meeting follows the launch of an Ofsted consultation into the inspection framework for childminder agencies last week.

Lynda de Wolf, joint director of the UKCMA, told Nursery World that the group intends to use the meeting to discuss why the number of childminders has reduced in the past decade, concerns raised by childminders about agencies, and funding for the disadvantaged two-year-olds.

She said, 'Childminders are very concerned about the introduction of the agencies and are worried they won't be able to remain independent. There isn't much information available, so we are hoping to learn more. We need to know exactly what is happening.'

She added, 'We are hoping to invite some of the local authorities trialling the agencies to discuss their model and what it will mean for childminders who decide to remain independent.'

Bea Heath, director of ICM-SE, said, 'We welcome the opportunity to meet with the minister. ICM-SE members tell us that they are already successful small businesses and do not see any value in introducing a middleman.

'Our members are also concerned at the rolling back of local authority training and support for childminders in an attempt to make way for the introduction of agencies.'

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said his organisation also welcomes open dialogue with Ms Truss about the introduction of childminder agencies, but would not agree to endorse them.

Nursery World contacted all 20 of the organisations/councils piloting childminder agencies to see what progress has been made.

Of the trial agencies that responded, most declined to comment on the progress of their agency model or said they would provide more information after March, when the pilots are due to end. However, South Gloucestershire Council and Riverside Cares supplied updates.

A spokesperson for the council said, 'Our involvement with the childminding agency pilot is still progressing well and enabling us to develop the support we offer to childminders in the district. We have recently been working with Ipsos Mori, which is producing case studies and evaluating the pilot projects. We will shortly be sending out questionnaires on its behalf that will give our parents and childminders the opportunity to feed back their views directly to Government.'

Jill Wheatcroft, co-director of Riverside Cares, told Nursery World that her organisation had met with and had contact from a number of childminders with 'wide-ranging' opinions.

She added, 'What struck us is that many childminders are now learning more about the upsides as well as the possible pitfalls.'

Nursery World has also learned from 4Children, which hosts the Foundation Years website, that a couple of trial areas are looking at 'partnership working'.

Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, said, 'As far as we are concerned, the progress of the organisations piloting childminder agencies is good.

'Feedback from agencies is that they are most popular with new childminders and when they are in areas where local authority support has reduced.'

Feelings among childminders on Facebook about the agency pilots appear to be mixed.

Telford childminder Sam Street, who attended two meetings held by pilot agency Telford and Wrekin Council last year, said she remained open minded about the agency. Another childminder taking part in a trial said she thought joining the agency in her area wouldn't cost her any more money than remaining independent.

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'Childminder agencies will open up new routes to the profession, attract more high-quality childminders and give more choice to parents.

'They will also reduce the administrative burdens faced by individual childminders, whose numbers have almost halved in the past 20 years.

'Joining an agency will be voluntary. Childminders will still be able to register independently with Ofsted if they wish.'