Children’s centres have been a major contribution to my positive experience of first-time motherhood. From my home in the London Borough of Haringey, I regularly accessed services from at least five different centres, including midwife appointments, breastfeeding support groups, weighing clinics and stay-and-play sessions. When the time came to arrange childcare before I returned to work, I naturally turned to the centres for guidance. But the day I called my local centre to confirm the time of the next childminder stay-and-play group, I was instead invited to its closing party.
Children’s centres aim to give help and advice on child and family health and parenting, as well as money, training and employment. The Government began developing the network from 1999. By 2010 there were more than 3,600 children’s centres in England. But since then they have been in decline as local authorities try to cut costs as a result of government funding reductions. In 2015, the then childcare minister Sam Gyimah said 250 ‘main’ children’s centres had closed.
Haringey Council closed seven of its 16 children’s centres in April 2016. While the council has continued to offer many of the services from other locations, it did not provide alternative provision for childminder groups. As a result, childminders in the area are finding it harder to maintain professional networks. Providing opportunities for children to socialise in groups has become more challenging and expensive. And when it comes to connecting with new parents, they are relying more on the online Family Information Service (FIS). The situation is similar across the country, where hundreds more children’s centres face closure as local authorities try to cut costs.
LOSS OF SUPPORT
Childminder Chantal Green has worked in Haringey for 25 years. She attended a weekly childminder stay-and-play group at a children’s centre before it closed this year. Up to 20 childminders met and organised messy play, outdoor play and singing for the children. ‘There isn’t a place now where we can all meet up for the children to socialise and for childminders to catch up,’ says Ms Green. ‘We used to exchange information on childcare, Ofsted, ideas for planning and the Early Years Foundation Stage. The council’s childminding co-ordinator would come and join us and chat with us if anyone had any worries or concerns.’
When the centre closed, Ms Green and her colleagues looked for an alternative venue. So far the options they have found are too expensive. Ms Green says £20 an hour for a two-hour session, plus the cost of equipment, is too high, particularly if one week the group has low attendance. ‘We are trying to figure out whether to pass the cost onto parents, but what do you do if a parent refuses, especially if you have parents on working tax credits?’ asks Ms Green. ‘Then it’s unfair.’
During summertime, Ms Green is meeting fellow childminders in parks. She has also invited them to her house, but says the lack of space limits the number she can invite.
The childminder stay-and-play group was also an opportunity for prospective parents to meet local childminders in an informal setting. Samantha Green, a former Haringey Council children’s centre employee who lost her job in the April cuts, says she would direct parents to the group if they sought advice about local childcare options. ‘It gave them the option to come and see childminders and speak to them without feeling they had to make a commitment, as they might when visiting them at their house,’ she says. Ms Green would also give parents lists of local childminders printed off from the FIS, but says she often noticed mistakes on the database. She is concerned that this is now the first port of call for parents looking for childminders.
‘The closures will affect childminders in the long run in terms of getting new children,’ she suggests. ‘A lot of it is through recommendations, but if you’re isolated you’ve got to start from scratch to get people to know who you are. The FIS can also put people off – they look at the list and find it overwhelming.’
Another Haringey childminder, Marie Chikri, agrees the drop-in sessions were a ‘good starting point for families’. ‘Now that the centre has been closed, the possibility of finding potential business has been taken from us along with the support from other childminders,’ she says. Ms Chikri is concerned the impact of the group’s loss will be felt more acutely in the winter months. ‘I can only hope that the council takes the young children in the borough into consideration before then,’ she states.
Nursery World contacted Haringey Council to ask what support it is providing childminders, but no-one was available to comment.
Childminders in Northampton face similar challenges. In May, Northamptonshire County Council announced it would close eight of its 50 children’s centres and relocate 13 to their nearest library. This follows changes it made to services’ opening hours and venues in 2015.
Northamptonshire Childminding Association executive director Elaine Pitteway (pictured) says the centres originally hosted groups to promote and support childminders, but these gradually closed. The association is contracted by the local authority to support childminders. She says losing a regular location where her staff could meet childminders has made its role more complex. ‘We still support where we can by telephone and email, or if we know that four or five childminders attend a local toddler group we might try and pop along,’ explains Ms Pitteway. ‘It’s better for us if it’s about particular issues they’ve all got, as it saves us doing individual visits.’
If the association was better resourced it would try to host such groups, says Ms Pitteway. She emphasises their importance for children’s development. ‘Those group activities allow the childminder to observe the children as to the choices they make when they’re in a larger group setting and how their confidence is developing, which you can’t always do when it’s just three children and yourself,’ she suggests.
In Swindon, the borough council closed its final five children’s centres in June. Childminder Debbie Southern, who has provided childcare services in the area for 23 years, says these closures won’t affect her as she and other childminders have already adapted following previous closures. Three years ago the council shut the centre where she ran a childminding group. Having struggled to find an alternative venue, after a spell in a scout hut Ms Southern and her colleagues now meet weekly at a soft-play centre. ‘It isn’t ideal because you can’t actually discuss things,’ she explains. ‘When we hired a scout hut we had to pay. We were happy to pay, that wasn’t the issue – it was the lack of space.’
Ms Southern passes on the soft-play entry fee to her parents. She asks them for £5 a week to cover this, and lunch. ‘They’re all happy to pay it, but I’m very upfront about it,’ she explains. ‘Some people want to ask for money but don’t feel like they can.’
Kirsty Cooney is a more recently registered Swindon-based childminder. She says providing services without children’s centre provision is manageable, but makes the profession more expensive and requires childminders to travel further.
A Swindon Borough Council spokesman said despite the closures, childminders could use the borough’s three family centres as places to meet. These deliver targeted services rather than universal ones provided by children’s centres, mainly focusing on vulnerable children from birth to the age of two. ‘There are regular child-minder drop-in sessions at family centres,’ he said.
LEARNING TO ADAPT
Despite the challenges, Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (Pacey) chief executive Liz Bayram says childminders can adapt. She says childminders should start taking a more collaborative approach, for example by forging local partnerships with entities that can provide a free venue for a childminder group. ‘The opportunity to bring children together to share and play together is a really important one,’ says Ms Bayram. ‘It may be there are days in a week where a nursery or pre-school is quieter and may be able to offer an opportunity.’
Childminders say that they have also had some success setting up groups in community venues, though some types of venue work better than others (see box).
Ms Bayram suggests childminders apply for grants to help them pay to hire community spaces. Pacey’s volunteer groups, who provide peer-to-peer support, have had success in accessing funding from local foundations.
As a means of advertising childminder services, Ms Bayram suggests health visitors could become a new mouthpiece in place of children’s centre staff. She says childminders should speak to their local authority and make sure health visiting teams have the right information to give parents when they ask for childcare advice. ‘It’s all part of the two-year-old check and Integrated Review,’ she suggests. ‘It’s not ideal, but there are alternatives.’
When it came to my own experience, it was through a combination of using the FIS, and childminders recommending each other, that I found a childminder for my daughter. But I regret that she won’t be able to attend the stay-and-play groups at the now-closed children’s centres, and that other mothers may struggle to find a childminder as I did.
CASE STUDY: SUE GROSVENOR, CHILDMINDER, NORTHAMPTON
‘About 12 childminders used to attend a weekly childminder group in our local Sure Start centre. Two years ago Northamptonshire County Council made changes to the opening hours and venues of some children’s centres in the area. Ours did not close, but we were told childminders could no longer meet there.
‘The council advised us our local library now had responsibility to help groups such as ours. It offered us a corner of the main part of the library as a new venue. The librarians told us a room would be made available so that we could have better security and privacy. It wasn’t ideal. Libraries are places people go to for a bit of quiet – they don’t want a bunch of children singing songs – and we couldn’t do any craft activities there. After a year, no room materialised, so we looked elsewhere.
‘Another childminder and I decided to try a local mums and tots group in a community hall. We got talking to the owners and they said we could hire the venue for our group. At first they wanted £25 a week, but I negotiated it down to £10. Now seven of us childminders and up to 19 children meet there weekly. We all put £2 a week into a pot during term-time to cover the cost. We don’t pass this onto parents. I act as treasurer, and use anything left over to pay for small gifts for the children at Christmas or to replace broken toys.
‘The set-up isn’t as nice as a children’s centre. It’s just an empty room, with no displays. We do a craft activity, sing songs and provide snacks. We are able to store a small number of toys in a cupboard, but we can’t bring anything big.
‘Even so, it’s important to have the group. At a soft-play centre, children are just running around and don’t get the benefit of learning. It’s hard work to organise and manage, but it’s worth the effort.’