Concern over agency models as pilots start off

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A few weeks into the childminder agency pilots, a number of organisations have begun to consult with the early years sector about their proposed models.

While some organisations have held meetings with childminders in their local communities, it has been reported that some do not seem to have knowledge or experience of childminding.

Nursery World contacted a number of the organisations piloting the childminder agencies to see how their models are taking shape.

Only one agency, @Home Childcare, has published its costs, while others are still deciding what their model will look like.

Wigan childminder Dawn Heaps, who attended a meeting with St Bede childminder agency, said she felt that the charity has a lack of understanding about what childminders do.

Ms Heaps is lead childminder for the Standish and Aspull (Wigan) accredited network and the local Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years facilitator for Wigan.

Ms Heaps also said that she felt St Bede did not appreciate that some childminders only work term-time and a number care for their own pre-school aged children.

She told Nursery World that she has concerns about childminders being used as bank staff at the charity's nurseries, after it was suggested a childminder take along any children in their care to the setting while working there.

She said, 'My public liability insurance wouldn't cover me for taking children in my care to a nursery. Parents put their children in my care as they want them to be looked after by a childminder.'

Ms Heaps added that St Bede's plans to carry out monthly monitoring visits is unrealistic, as in her experience even trying to organise four visits a year with the co-ordinator of the Standish and Aspull accredited network is difficult to organise.

Entrust is another one of the 20 organisations piloting the agencies that has met with childminders in Stafford, Staffordshire.

Entrust, a collaboration between Staffordshire County Council and Capita, describes itself as a 'pioneering joint venture company'.

Childminders who attended the meeting said they felt that the company wanted them to shape their agency model for it as it had no idea of costings and could not answer questions about what it would offer or how the agency would work.

Nursery World contacted Capita, but it refused to comment.

South Gloucestershire Council has also held a series of question and answers sessions this month to talk through its agency model with childminders.

One childminder who attended a session said that the council was unable to answer any specific questions, and all it seemed to want to do was promote its new Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

Another attendee said that while she was not asked to sign up to anything, she got the feeling that all childminders in South Gloucestershire are already part of the pilot and that those childminders who do not join the agency and continue to remain independent will form part of its feedback to the Government.

A spokesperson for South Gloucestershire Council said, 'We recognise and value the quality of childcare provided by childminders in our area. We applied to become a pilot agency because this would give us the opportunity to work in partnership with our childminders to further develop the support we offer.

Another agency, First Years Childcare, based in York, is described on the Foundation Years website as a new childcare organisation set up to improve quality and support for childminders and nannies.

Owner Natalie Bishop is an Ofsted-registered childminder with nine years' childcare experience. She said that First Years Childcare is working with a small group of childminders trialling support systems and looking at how they might run their own agency. She said that costings are still unknown as this is something it hopes to establish during the trial.

Hampshire County Council held a general briefing session with childminders deivering the free entitlement on 16 October. The County Council says that its chidminder agency was discussed and those at the meeting were invited to volunteer to be involved in any future dialogue.

A spokesperson for Hampshire County Council said, 'The agency plans are still only in development. The plans for the agency pilot will be published if and when they have been finalised and agreed.'

Riverside Cares managing director Jill Wheatcroft said that the company has spoken to various childminders and is gathering information on their views, including the type of support and services they would find beneficial. Childminders' needs would be a key factor in deciding how the agency may operate and what services and packages may be offered.
'As quality in childcare is extremely important, Riverside Cares is also looking at a quality assurance tool in collaboration with experienced childminders. We are appreciative of how many childminders are willing to share their views and experiences,' said Ms Wheatcroft.

Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, said, 'We're doing all we can to help the organisations trialling the childminders agencies. Those doing the trials are genuinely trying to do their best and are committed to childminders.

'None of the organisations are going in thinking they know all the answers. It's a genuine development. There is no blueprint and those piloting the agencies are waiting for Ofsted to set the framework.'

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'The introduction of childminder agencies will open up new routes in to the profession for high-quality childminders and will give more choice to parents. We are working with 20 organisations in trialling the agency approach, which will tell us more about how agencies might work and what models might be established.'

Childminder Penny Webb, lead of the Childminding Advisory Group within the Save Childhood Movement, called a meeting with early years organisations to discuss their thoughts about the agencies.

Following the meeting, an open letter is being composed to stress the importance of quality assurance of the agencies and individual childminders.

The letter, which also has the backing of childminder organisations ICM-SE and UKCMA, will be published ahead of the childminder agencies being discussed at the Committee stage of the Children and Families Bill at the House of Lords.

Case study: St Bede childminder agency

St Bede childminder agency is being led by Jack Hatch, headteacher of St Bede Academy in Bolton, and St Bede Services, a registered charity that manages three nurseries and six out-of-school clubs.

Sarah Bagshaw, finance director of St Bede Services, told Nursery World that it has adapted the agency model based on the views and opinions of the childminders.

Ms Bagshaw revealed that childminders who join its agency would pay an annual fee, with a possibility of spreading the cost over 52 weeks.

Childminders would be free to choose how much and what training they want to do with the agency's 'pick and mix' menu.

However, she said that those who join the agency would be subject to monitoring visits. For new childminders or those with an Ofsted grade of less than good, visits would take place every month. More 'established' childminders or those with a good or outstanding Ofsted would receive quarterly visits.

Ms Bagshaw added that childminders in the agency who were unable to fill their places would be given the opportunity to work as bank staff at nurseries.

'As are registered charity, we are not looking to make a fast buck by running a childminder agency.

'We've been in childcare for ten years so have the necessary experience. We run high-quality provision, with all of our settings rated good and outstanding,' said Ms Bagshaw.

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