Childminder Agencies - Government steps up agency push

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Childminder agencies are a hot topic again now that the DfE has drafted in the charity 4Children to support interested organisations, but the model still divides opinion. Charlotte Goddard reports

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Childminder agencies, first launched in 2013, have got off to a very slow start, with just eight currently registered with Ofsted. After the initial flurry of activity, many wondered if the idea had been put on the back burner.

However, the Department for Education seems determined to rekindle the roll-out of agencies across England, and has funded 4Children to guide organisations through the registration process and provide ongoing support after registration. The charity will also offer agencies help with marketing themselves to childminders and parents.

‘The DfE has had other priorities, such as the delivery of the 30 funded hours, so there has been little activity on childminder agencies,’ says Sue Robb, head of early years at 4Children. ‘Now they are on the agenda again.’ The charity has been running events for organisations that have shown an interest in becoming an agency and updated its online toolkit for aspiring agencies (www.foundationyears.org.uk/child-minders).

Ms Robb says that from her perspective, childminders seem to be warming to agencies more than they did when the idea was first mooted. ‘We are not picking up such a negative vibe,’ she says. ‘The policy was brought in without giving people time to reflect, and now they have had a chance to think about the offer.’

The eight existing agencies are run by a range of organisations, and Ms Robb suggests the potential field is even wider. ‘Local authorities, private companies, private companies working with local authorities, social enterprises,’ she says. ‘Some of the big childcare providers are looking into it, as well as academies, schools and childminders themselves.’

The Rutland Early Years Agency (www.rutlandearlyyears.co.uk), which officially launched on 1 February, has been set up and run by three childminders, with support from the local authority. The council has partnered with the agency to deliver much of the support to all 26 of the county’s Ofsted-registered childminders, which was previously delivered by the local authority. ‘We are a very small local authority, and with the reductions in local authority funding, and fewer members of staff around, this seemed an amazing idea for us,’ says Sally Hickman, early years adviser at Rutland, which was part of the Government’s pilot scheme. ‘We haven’t got the capacity to run an agency ourselves.’

The childminders who have set up the agency were part of the council’s leading practitioner programme, whereby experienced practitioners support their peers. Alongside the basic level of support, which is free, childminders can choose to register with the agency for £6 a week, or pay £5 a week to access extra support and training but stay Ofsted-registered. They can also ‘pick and mix’ elements of support.

At present, while all childminders in the county are accessing the first level of support through the agency, none have signed up for full membership. Parents and carers can register with the agency for £10 a year, in return for support in finding different childcare options, and the agency offers its service to other local authorities.

Achieving for Children, the organisation which runs the Leap Ahead agency in west London (see case study), also provides statutory support for childminders on behalf of Richmond and Kingston borough councils. As local authority resources dwindle, this model may become increasingly attractive to councils.

Other agencies have been set up by schools, such as The Northumberland Church of England Academy and St Bedes Childminding Agency. This model gives parents the option of pre-school and wraparound childcare, with the reassurance that comes with the schools’ involvement.

Nursery groups

Nursery groups have also been mooted as potential agencies, but Ruth Pimentel, chief executive of the Toad Hall nursery group, says she considered the model but ultimately decided against it.

‘The idea has some potential,’ she says. ‘The issue I had is making the numbers work – I would need a childminder support officer to do quality assurance visits, and to be available on the phone if there are any problems, so you are looking at £25,000 to £30,000 already.’

Ms Pimentel is also concerned about the risks involved. ‘It feels a high risk to take on a childminder who is working in their own home,’ she says. ‘It is taking you away from your core business. I wouldn’t be able to persuade our board that it would be a viable, sustainable addition to what we already do.’

Ms Pimentel feels there is little incentive for childminders to join an agency when they can still be independently registered. Ms Robb, however, cites the regular quality assurance visits, which allow agency childminders to receive more regular feedback than those registered with Ofsted, as a major draw. ‘The Ofsted registration process for agencies demands that the quality assurance is tough – the agencies we have worked with are really focused on quality,’ she says.

While many childminders welcome more frequent inspection visits, some are also concerned about losing their individual rating, as Ofsted inspects the agency as a whole (see box, left). ‘What if an Outstanding childminder is with an agency that requires improvement?’ asks Sarah Neville, a registered childminder in Cheshire. Victoria Flint, head of communications at the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, says: ‘Childminders fought to get Ofsted to recognise their settings on a level playing field with other settings, and they don’t want to give that up.’

One of the biggest drivers for agencies may be a negative one, as local authority support dwindles. ‘Because of local authority budgets being reduced, in our generic role we only have the capacity to support childminders with safeguarding issues, or who are less than good, but there are lots of good childminders who have need for a more enhanced level of support,’ says Barbara Morton, early years consultant at Achieving for Children. Ms Neville says, ‘Our worry is if you take the local authority support away, agencies may become the only ones registering new childminders.’

‘I think it will become increasingly difficult for childminders to access training and support, so there will be more pressure to join an agency than currently,’ says Ms Pimentel. ‘Agencies reduce Ofsted’s inspection costs, so if an agency has got 20 childminders, Ofsted has saved itself 19 visits.’

Ofsted’s annual fees for childminders currently stand at £35, but the Government is consulting on increasing these, and many fear a sharp rise. Ms Flint says, ‘It is entirely possible Ofsted’s fees will shoot up and childminders would have to think again about joining an agency.’ Ms Neville adds, ‘It depends on how high they go up. They have been held at £35 for so long, they should have been raised incrementally.’

The introduction of the 30 funded hours could also promote agencies as a model. ‘With the 30 hours coming in there will be an increasing need for more blended care,’ says Ms Morton. ‘Our agency is particularly well placed to help childminders work the 30 funded hours because we have good contacts and support across the whole early years sector.’

Ms Flint, however, does not believe agencies are the right vehicles for offering blended care. ‘Online solutions could give the opportunity to share learning journeys across two or three different settings, and provide a shared payment system,’ she says. ‘The agency model with all the implications it has for regulation seems the wrong solution for the problem.’

As the Government steps up its efforts to promote agencies, the sector is set for a greater focus on the agency model. Whether it takes off depends on whether the Government can persuade organisations that it is sustainable, and the agencies can persuade childminders that they are better off joining up.


CASE STUDY: LEAP AHEAD

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Since last May, Leap Ahead has signed up 16 childminders, with another nine going through the checking process. ‘We have a target to sign up 30 childminders in the first year so we’re really pleased,’ says Barbara Morton, early years consultant at Achieving for Children, the social enterprise that runs the agency. ‘We have had no struggle to find childminders – those already with the agency are our best advocates.’

Childminders on the agency’s books include some who have transferred from Ofsted.

Achieving for Children was created by Richmond and Kingston borough councils to provide their children’s services, as well as other revenue-generating services. The Leap Ahead team also delivers the local authorities’ statutory obligations towards childminders, including support for childminders with safeguarding issues. Although the same team delivers both local authority and agency services, Ms Morton stresses the two aspects are kept apart.

The agency offers full registration at £300 per year, and pay-as-you-go, which allows independent childminders to buy into aspects of the agency’s provision, such as training (workshops start at £25). ‘Most people think the costs are very fair because the training package that comes with full membership is the equivalent of £180,’ says Ms Morton. ‘They can see the value of it, and of having someone available on the phone at all times.’

Leap Ahead will quality-assess and grade its childminders annually. ‘We have decided to go for a grading system using the same labels as Ofsted because it helps parents,’ says Ms Morton.

The next step is to start promoting the agency to parents. ‘There wasn’t any point when we only had one childminder signed up, but now we can start,’ says Ms Morton. ‘We will aim to be impartial, but offer parents advice on what to look for, what their needs are and point them in the right direction.’

• leapahead.org.uk

INSPECTION AND RATING

• Childminder agencies will be judged as ether ‘effective’ or ‘ineffective’ when they are inspected by Ofsted.

• An agency will be inspected six to nine months after it registers its first childminder.

• Inspectors will visit around 10 per cent of childminders on the agency’s books to confirm the accuracy of the agency’s quality assessments.

• An agency’s rating will be based on the effectiveness of leadership and management, the quality of its services and its impact on the quality of the education and care provided by its childminders.

• Agencies must carry out two quality assurance visits in an early years childminder’s first year of registration, followed by a minimum of one per year.

• Agencies can choose to rate or grade childminders, but this is not a requirement.

• Guidance for inspectors: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/inspecting-childminding-agencies-guidance-for-inspectors

• Advice for organisations: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/383126/Childminder_agencies_-_step-by-step_guide_final.pdf