At the second reading of the Children and Families Bill in the House of Lords, Baroness Hughes of Stretford stated, ‘The childcare minister said last week that the agencies would be responsible for the training and development but there would be no new money.’
The Baroness added, ‘She envisaged that the cost would be passed to parents, but we know that the high cost of childcare is currently very difficult for parents to meet.’
The proposals to charge parents a fee for using childminder agencies, similar to nanny agencies, go against the aims of 'More Great Childcare' to make childcare more affordable and available for families and increase the quality of provision.
During the reading, concerns were also raised over how agencies will be inspected by Ofsted.
Under Government plans, only a cross-section of childminders registered with an agency will be inspected.
Baroness Hughes said, ‘Although we have no problem in principle with the proposals for new childminder agencies, they will need careful examination. There are two obvious concerns, first, childminders in agencies will no longer be inspected directly by Ofsted. Instead, the agency will be inspected on its quality assurance processes. We know what happened in Haringey when Ofsted undertook these arm’s-length desktop inspections, it gave Haringey a satisfactory rating shortly before baby Peter Connelly died.’
Her concerns were echoed by Lord Nash, who asked whether the childcare minister could confirm that all childminders will be inspected by Ofsted and not a cross-section of those who work for a particular agency.
A Department for Education spokesperson, 'It is simply wrong to say parents will be forced to pay higher costs because of childminder agencies. Agencies will share administrative burdens currently undertaken by individual childminders, cutting out duplication and delivering greater efficiency.
'At the moment individual childminders are responsible for their own training and development, but the introduction of agencies will allow childminders to concentrate on what they do best – caring for children. Agencies will also be optional for both childminders and parents – so childminders can continue working on their own should they choose to do so, and parents can still opt for an individual childminder if they prefer.'
Commenting on the second reading of the Bill, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said, ‘We are appalled that the Government would consider implementing any childcare proposals likely to lead to increased costs for parents. The Childcare Minister has repeatedly cited the need to tackle the high cost of childcare as a key priority, and yet has openly acknowledged that the agency plans may result in higher childcare bills.
‘The suggestion that Ofsted’s focus will be on the quality of the agencies, and not the childminders themselves, will be a cause of great concern for both parents and childcare professionals.
‘Parents should feel confident about the quality of the childcare professional caring for their child, and this is unlikely to be the case if Ofsted’s role is restricted to assessing the agency, and not the childminder. The Government seems to be expecting parents to pay more for a potentially lower standard of inspection.’
He added, ‘Baroness Jones of Whitchurch has called for the Government to conduct a full consultation before pushing ahead with the agency plans and we echo this call. But, as the row over the childcare ratio proposals clearly highlighted, simply launching a consultation is not enough. The Government must ensure that it actually listens to parents and professionals and fully considers their views before implementing any new policies.’
Liz Bayram, joint chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), said, ‘We remain sceptical that the agency model has been comprehensively thought through. Alongside our concerns about how it will support the delivery of quality childminding for families, PACEY is now unclear if it will actually reduce costs for parents. As with the proposals around ratios, this is another of the Government’s proposals aimed at reducing costs for families which actually would increase costs if it goes ahead.
‘While Government can set out its ideas on how agencies may work, it will ultimately be market forces that shape this and not policy makers. The individual businesses that will establish agencies from September 2014 will need to decide what service they offer to parents and how they plan to fund it, either through charges to parents or childminders who choose to use their services. ‘
Penny Webb, who runs Penny’s Place childminding service in Kidderminister, said, ‘Childminders have been questioning how childminding agencies would be funded since they were first suggested, as it was known quite early on that there would be no Government funding available.
‘Estimates as to the cost of running agencies have varied but educated guesses put it at thousands of pounds per childminder, which the childminding sector said would be too much to absorb and costs would inevitably be passed on to parents.
‘I am surprised though to hear that the Government are now saying there will be a direct cost to parents because this may mean that parents will be charged twice - once directly to the agency and once indirectly if childminders have to pass on some of the costs to parents if they can't absorb them all themselves. A double whammy for parents who have been expecting the government to reduce childcare cost.’
However, Bea Heath, director of Independent Childminders Social Enterprise, has argued that there is a lot of speculation surrounding childminder agencies and the reality is that nobody knows what they will look like.
She said, ‘At the moment the Department for Education are asking all interested parties to submit their expression of interest for consideration to be included in the pilot scheme.
‘This actually means that there is no definitive agency model that has been agreed. It also means that not all interested parties will be invited to pilot their models either.
‘From information gathered from our members some local authorities intend to submit their current network models as possible agency models, but have found it very difficult to find childminders that will agree to take part in their agency pilot, should their application be successful, and are ready to commit to paying to be part of the pilot.’