In the run-up to Ofsted taking over daycare inspections, minister Margaret Hodge is anxious to consult with the public, and childcare providers, as widely as possible
It's one of the hardest moments in a parent's life - that moment when you first leave your child in the care of another person. There are always concerns in the back of your mind. Will my child settle down? Will my child be safe and experience fun, stimulating play? As a mother of four children, I can remember coming back to the nursery in nervous anticipation, waiting to see if my child had had a good first day. And every time, to my relief, I was greeted with a big grin and shouts of 'Can I come back tomorrow, mum?'
It is one of my passions, as the Government minister responsible for early years and childcare, to strive to make that moment when every parent first leaves their child as stress-free as we can. We want to make sure that parents have absolute confidence in the daycare and early education that their child experiences. And we want to make sure that children in nurseries, daycare or with childminders receive the highest standards of care from the moment they leave their parents' arms.
That is why last month we published a consultation document on our new national standards for daycare for children under eight. For the first time we are proposing minimum quality levels for care right across every local authority. The consultation is a key part of our drive to deliver quality care for children across the country - and it is vital that we hear your views.
Next year the Ofsted Early Years Directorate (EYD) takes over the registration and inspection of daycare for children under eight. So, we want to ensure that clear standards exist against which providers can be inspected fairly. We have based our proposals on the existing Children Act guidance and on the local standards developed in the 150 local authorities in England. They reflect the strength of the current arrangements and will, I'm sure, be familiar to providers - but with a new focus on outcomes for children's safety and well-being.
We have proposed 14 headline standards which would apply to the five main types of daycare: full daycare; sessional daycare; out-of-school daycare; creches and childminders. The proposed standards cover many key subjects, ranging from the suitability of people working in settings, to ensuring the health, safety and welfare of children, to working with parents. With the headline standards come supporting criteria - or details to expand on the standards - which reflect the needs of each setting.
We all want to know that our children are receiving the best care, and one way to make sure of this is to set minimum qualification standards. At present guidelines say that at least half the staff in day nurseries should hold some qualification for a nursery to be registered - but they do not state what level the qualification should be.
In our standards we suggest, as a minimum, that half of all staff be qualified to NVQ Level 2. But in the consultation we ask whether this should rise to 75 per cent. And, of course, providers can set higher standards. The standards also state that staff should 'have the appropriate experience, skills and ability to do their jobs'.
We are keen to see the number of qualified childcare workers increase - and to see them build on their qualifications - so the responses to the consultation will help us to gauge the right approach to ensuring we have a well qualified, good quality workforce.
There are other important issues which the consultation process will highlight, such as guidance on how childminders agree with parents on how to discipline children. Parents are given the option to have a sensible agreement with their childminder on this, but - on this as on other matters - we will hear many viewpoints during the consultation process.
Once we have consulted widely we will publish the final standards. Those headline standards will be reflected in compulsory regulations, and the EYD will want to see that settings are following those regulations. The supporting criteria will not generally form part of the regulations, but the EYD must have regard to them in the inspections. We are confident that the EYD will apply the standards in a sensible, appropriate way.
This is the sensible and practical approach to childcare that we as a government want to promote. Childcare providers need to be free to concentrate on what they do best - providing high-quality care. And parents need to feel confident that their children are getting the best early years experience a child can have. Our children deserve nothing less. NW
Consultation packs can be obtained from the DfEE publication line (0845 60 222 60) or can be found on our website (www.dfee.gov.uk/daycare). The closing date for all responses is 31 October.