Data control: childminders and the internet

Plans to make registered childminders' personal details public could prompt a further exodus from a profession already suffering recruitment problems. James Tweed reports

Plans to make registered childminders' personal details public could prompt a further exodus from a profession already suffering recruitment problems. James Tweed reports

Childminders will soon be quitting the profession if their home addresses are published on the internet, warns the National Childminding Association (NCMA). Ofsted is considering putting home addresses on the website along with childminders' Ofsted reports. But the proposition has been met with alarm by many childminders, who worry that the safety of the children in their care, themselves and their own homes could be threatened.

'Ofsted needs to realise that it cannot treat childminders in the same way as nurseries and schools,' says NCMA chief executive Gill Haynes. 'Most registered childminders are women working alone in their own homes, caring for very young children. They feel that having their personal details available for the world to see online could make them an easy target for everyone from telesales and direct mail organisations to nuisance callers, paedophiles and stalkers. 'Childminders don't have the back-up of a team of colleagues and sophisticated security equipment. And they aren't able to leave their working premises at the end of the day.'

Opening the door

Ms Haynes warns that 'there will be a real backlash' unless Ofsted is able to come up with a compromise that allows parents to get the information they need while allowing childminders to keep their privacy.

Sue Johnson, a childminder in Enfield, north London, agrees. 'Quite a lot of childminders will say enough is enough and leave if Ofsted do go ahead with publishing our details. We are professional carers, but the environment we work in has to be taken into consideration. It is my own home.

'Nursery workers can lock the nursery door and go home at night, whereas I am here all the time. Having our home details on a website will just open the door to bogus callers and an increase in junk mail.'

Concerns that inspection reports, accompanied with addresses, could lead people to identify the children being cared for have been raised by childminders at Joan Mason's local group in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire. Joan says, 'The reports will say if children we care for have special needs or behavioural problems, and there is a worry that these children could be identified.

'Also, in my childminder group at the moment there is a case where custody of a child is being fought over in the courts. What would a childminder do if an estranged parent got their address and turned up on their doorstep? If a child was taken they could be out of the country in two hours.'

Childminder Bob Law, from Banstead in Surrey, says, 'I tried to contact an Ofsted inspector recently, only to be told that his e-mail address was confidential! There is one rule for them and another for us. What about childminders' rights?

'I understand and appreciate that parents need to have as much information as possible about childminders, but to put all our information on a website - which could include our address, the hours we work, the ages of the children we currently care for - is a breach of confidentiality.

'Sadly, there are people out there ready to exploit any situation. It could open up practitioners to problems such as paedophiles and burglars. I also doubt that parents of the children we care for want this information recorded.'

Private and public

Not all childminders are up in arms at the prospect. Tunja Stone from Linslade, Bedfordshire, does not object to Ofsted printing her address on their website. 'My name and address already appears on the local childminding network website and it is also readily available in the library and Citizen's Advice Bureau,' she says.

'Of course, my home has got good security and we always make sure the door is locked. If someone comes to the door and I do not like the look of them, then they do not come in. I get people to phone to make appointments before they visit, and if I have doubts about someone I do check the information they have given me - in the past I have looked up addresses on the electoral roll to make sure they are correct. When the Ofsted inspector comes I ask to see their ID. Even the children want to see their pass once they're inside, because they know about stranger danger.

'I can understand that having their details on a website may make some childminders feel threatened. But if someone wants to see whether you have children at the house, it is easier to park down the street and watch, rather than check a website.

'I feel it is purely a perceived threat. There has been a lot of scaremongering about paedophiles preying on people on the internet and that does frighten people. The internet is unfortunately still viewed with distrust.'

According to Ofsted, the proposal to post addresses on the internet was intended to strike a balance between childminding being 'a private business and a public service'. It is also part of an Ofsted push to make childminders' inspection reports 'more accessible to the public'. But the NCMA says childminders had believed the Children's Information Service (CIS) would be involved in making their inspection reports available to parents looking for daycare.

NCMA chair Lynn Daley has written to Sure Start minister Catherine Ashton to tell her that childminders 'have already confirmed our support for making inspection reports available to parents in the fullest possible way, because we believe that this is the right way forward for the service. However, we understood that this would be through the secure websites operated by CIS.'

The local CIS acts as an intermediary between daycare providers and parents needing childcare. It approaches local providers asking for information for its database and whether they agree to the information being placed on the internet. Karen Ramshaw, chief executive of the National Association of Children's Information Services, has noted that childminders are often reluctant.

She says, 'There is a lower proportion of childminders on the internet than other care providers, partly due to the Data Protection Act, but also due to possible problems regarding the internet.'

The NCMA says it has received more than 1,000 letters and e-mails from members protesting about the move. 'Twenty per cent of the correspondence we have received is from childminders who have said they will resign. And people who are part of the way through their childminding registration process have said that this is not what they bought in to,' Ms Haynes says. 'The strength of feeling from the e-mails is staggering. There is a real feeling that this is the heavy hand of bureaucracy, rather than a thoughtful approach.'

The organisation has also received correspondence from worried parents. One wrote that Ofsted's plan to have 'centrally accessible data that includes addresses is both dangerous and ludicrous. As a parent I do not want to expose my children to the possibility of any misuse of this system'.

Gill Haynes says, 'Parents are more outraged than childminders. They feel they have lost their sense of security for their children. They want care in a home-based environment that is both like the children's own home and a relaxed environment.'

Concerned consulting

The strength of concerns raised by NCMA members has prompted Ofsted to agree to consult childminders and parents on the issue. A spokesman said, 'Ofsted has a legal obligation to keep a register of all childminders and we also have an obligation to make this information available to the public. The initial thinking was that the internet was the most effective vehicle to do that. But due to concerns raised by the NCMA, Ofsted has agreed to look at what other options are available to make the information available.

'We have opened a dialogue with the NCMA on the best way to take soundings from all childminders and parents who would potentially use their services. These soundings are likely to take place over the summer and we hope to have an outcome in the autumn.'

The controversy could prove the final straw for many childminders who have been angered over a number of issues in recent years that they think undermine their status.

The Government is currently running a recruitment campaign in England to attract more workers into childcare. But if Ofsted's consultation does not come up with a pleasing solution and 20 per cent of England's 70,000 childminders resign, the Government may be looking for a lot more recruits.

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