Since the Government formally announced its plans to introduce childminder agencies at the start of this year, there has been growing confusion as to how this scheme will be rolled out, as well as what it means to childminders and the families who use them.
There appear to be a number of conflicting goals with agencies. First, the promise they will increase childminding quality while removing the current inspection framework for individual childminders; a framework proven to drive up quality. Second, the suggestion that agencies will reduce costs for parents by making it easier for more people to join the childminding profession, while still charging childminders a fee to join. More recently it has been suggested that agencies may not, after all, charge childminders a fee, but rather charge 'apparently' willing parents fees to access higher quality childminding.
We know these proposals have caused anxiety and confusion for many childminders through the initial suggestion of an enforced model that all childminders must join. Thankfully, through PACEY and its members' lobbying, this remains an option childminders can choose to take up or not. This concession is very welcome, but arguably with less support from local authorities, there will still be some pressure on childminders to join agencies.
Recent childminder research from the IPPR, supported by PACEY, shows that the majority of childminders remain opposed to agencies and believe they will increase fees to parents. Certainly, we know the Government is not intending to fund the set-up of childminder agencies, so these new entities will need to create a sustainable business model quickly. From the initial plans from agency pilots, it is becoming clear that there are likely to be higher costs to childminders and families.
Home Childcare is one organisation which looks set to become a pilot agency in September. Its current costs for new childminders include start up packages ranging from £199 to £599.
The website states some individuals may be eligible for a free package of support. It also promotes the new start-up grant funding of £250. But when you put that in the context of low annual childminding earnings - PACEY's latest salary survey shows half of childminders earn less than £15,000 a year - it becomes clear these costs may be prohibitive.
Costs are not the only issue. The biggest single concern for PACEY childminder members is the loss of individual Ofsted inspections, with a changeover to inspecting the agency's quality improvement processes and a sample of childminders on the agency's register. This was a significant concern for parents who Netmums surveyed on PACEY's behalf. These parents were clear that if this change came in, it would make them less willing to use a childminder.
IPPR research has also showed that only 7 per cent of childminders support the idea of moving away from individual inspections. There are many more outstanding questions relating to practical issues including tax, insurance, levels of autonomy for childminders and freedom to agree working hours and fees. The list goes on.
PACEY has opposed the introduction of childminder agencies for almost two years. We have highlighted our members' concerns to ministers, regulators, local authorities and others in the sector. We have tried through the parliamentary process to have the relevant clauses removed from the legislation currently in the Lords and, in October, we will see one more attempt to do so.
We have also refused to take part in the DfE's pilot programme or to support any developments linked to this. While it has cost us financially, this is of little concern when the future sustainability of childminding is at risk.
There are better ways to support new and existing childminders to improve, without the need for the high fees that agencies will bring. Through peer support from other childminders, advice and training from professional associations, like PACEY, as well as support from local authorities, childminders can already gain the help they need to sustain their business and continuously improve their practice. With just one year to go until agencies become law, we hope the Government listens to childminders and recognises this model is one that children, families and childminders are better off without.
- Read the education and childcare minister's response