Education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss also confirmed a freeze on the fees that childminders pay Ofsted at £35 a year, for the fifth year in a row.
Ministers do not intend to prescribe a business model for agencies and want agencies to have the freedom to develop models that parents and childminders want locally.
However, minimum standards will be set out in legislation and the consultation wants views on specifics, such as the number of hours of continuous professional development that agencies must provide for childminders.
The consultation also asks for views on changes in the role of local authorities and follows the passing of the Children and Families Act.
Questions on how childminder agencies should operate include:
- the annual fee agencies will pay, in line with that of nurseries at £220;
- the number of hours of professional development offered to childminders;
- the number of quality assurance visits provided by the agency;
- the number of hours of direct support from agencies to childminders.
Education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss said, ‘I want parents to have better access to affordable, high-quality childcare. Freezing fees and reducing the bureaucracy will encourage new childminders to enter this vital profession.
‘We know that good early education gives children the best possible start in life. Childminders are an important part of this and offer huge flexibility for parents - we want to see their numbers increase.’
Bolton headteacher and childcare provider Jack Hatch, who plans to open a childminder agency and has been involved in the pilot, said, ‘This will benefit children and parents so much. Parents can have a relationship with the agency and have a point of contact beyond the childminder. They have support if for any reason the childminder isn’t available. Children can gain so much more from the exciting experiences and opportunities they get from their individual childminder having more professional development and support.
The agency has also been involved in the pilot inspections by Ofsted.
Mt Hatch added, ‘This is proving so helpful in checking our documentation and procedures and giving us the security to know we are on the correct path.’
Commenting on the plans, Professor Kathy Sylva from Oxford University said, ‘There is an exciting opportunity for childminder agencies to work more closely to their mutual benefit with teaching schools or primary schools with foundation stage provision: parents would then have access to a blend of centre-based and home-based care, which might benefit parents and children alike.’
4Children’s head of early years, Sue Robb said, ‘Childminder agencies are set to become a part of the childcare landscape for parents and This consultation will play an important part in determining exactly how the agencies will operate from when the scheme rolls out from September.
‘The charges for setting up a childminder agency and to individual childminders have been kept as low as possible with no increase to the registration fees for individual childminders. It is important that childminders, particularly existing workers, continue to have the choice as to whether to remain as an individual childminder or join a childminder agency. The fee structure announced today highlighting that fees payable to Ofsted will be frozen means that this choice will not be compromised by financial considerations.
‘The draft regulations for childminder agencies have the potential to continuously monitor and evaluate quality but Ofsted inspections must be robust and rigorous.
‘It is vital that childminder agencies provide quality childcare which parents can rely on and this consultation is an opportunity for all interested parties to have their say on how best to achieve this.’
Also published today is statutory guidance for local authorities on early education and childcare, which will replace the current guidance from 1 September 2014.
This includes guidance on the eligibility of 40 per cent of two-year-olds to an early education place.
It also states that funded two-year-olds should be offered provision with good or outstanding providers and only funded in settings that are satisfactory or require improvement when there is not sufficient higher quality provision available.
The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years said that the consultation did nothing to allay its fears that childminder agencies will not help to raise quality of care for children or deliver the promised cost savings for families.
Chief executive Liz Bayram said, 'Although it is encouraging to see that the fee levels for individual childminders to register with Ofsted will be frozen at £35, we are concerned that this is only guaranteed for one year.
'It is vital that the inspection and regulation of agencies is robust enough to offer parents adequate reassurance around the quality of care delivered by the childminders on its books.
'PACEY finds it particularly concerning that, after the initial year, the number of inspections an agency conducts with its childminders could be reduced to one per year. This will not be enough to convince parents of quality care and threatens the level of professional contact and support for agency-registered childminders.
'We are also concerned that the consultation does not address how childminder agencies will meet safeguarding requirements for those living with childminders, not only the childminder themselves. This exists for independent childminders and we know it’s an important factor in parents choosing their childcare.'
'We need to see more details of how Ofsted plans to ensure adequate support and professional development for agency-registered childminders. The Government also needs to provide a clear outline of how it plans to support childminders who choose not to join an agency, to ensure they have the opportunity to continuously improve and offer high quality care to children and families.'
The Pre-school Learning Alliance said that childminders who did not join an agency would be left with less support than those who joined one.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, 'While these proposals may provide some comfort to childminders who choose to join an agency, where does this leave their independent counterparts? Such a disjointed and contradictory approach risks creating a two-tier system, where agency-registered childminders have access to regular support, training and guidance via their agencies, while independent childminders are expected to make do with an inspection every four years.
'The consultation document itself states that agency-registered childminders will “have much more regular contact and visits than childminders currently have with Ofsted”. While the Government may stress that agencies will not be compulsory to join, many childminders will be concerned that these changes will increase the pressure on them to do so.'
Labour’s shadow minister for childcare and children Lucy Powell MP said, 'Childminder agencies are not the silver bullet ministers think they are to tackle David Cameron’s cost-of-living crisis. They could increase, not reduce costs for mums and dads. Parents facing a cost of living crisis have seen costs rise 30 per cent since 2010 and at the same time wages are down £1,600. The number of childminders has fallen 2,601 since 2011.'
Labour has said that it would extend free childcare for working parents with three- and four-year-olds from 15 to 25 hours and introduce a Primary Childcare Guarantee to help parents manage the logistical nightmare of arranging before-and- after-school care.
- The consultation, Childminder agencies and changes to the local authority role, is in two parts: Part A is consulting on draft regulations for childminder agencies which sets out the key requirements for registration and other issues to do with operating a childminder agency; and Part B on changes to regulations to local authorities’ duties towards free early years provision in their area. The closing date is 22 May 2014.
- Read the statutory guidance for local authorities.