Attempts by peers to amend childcare bill fail

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Childminders have expressed disappointment that a peer’s attempt to postpone the introduction of childminding agencies has failed.

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The proposed amendment to the Children and Families Bill was one of several policies affecting early years discussed in the House of Lords last week.

The Grand Committee, which is currently scrutinising the bill, also rejected a plea to include current childcare ratios in primary legislation, and suggested Ofsted could charge childminders £700 and group settings £1,500 for requested re-inspections.

Baroness Morgan of Ely, (pictured), argued that childminder agencies’ introduction should be delayed until the proposals had been properly piloted. She suggested an amendment to the bill that would require the Government to consult for three months and only make a decision on the policy after results of the consultation were published.

‘However competent the agencies are, much of the paperwork involved is about observation, assessment and planning for the individual child. So I am not quite sure what they will bring to the party, other than an extra tier of bureaucracy and significant additional cost,’ she said. ‘These costs will, inevitably, be passed on from childminders to parents, adding to their burden. It would make sense to wait until this proposal has been properly piloted and consulted on, prior to putting it in the bill.’

Baroness Walmsley backed the motion. She said the childminder agency pilots, currently operating in 20 sites, will report after the bill has passed.

But schools minister Lord Nash said the Government had already committed to consulting sufficiently on the plans. He said the Government would publish an evaluation on the pilots early next year, which would include information about their effect on local markets.

Independent Childminders director and childminder Bea Heath said Baroness Morgan’s proposed bill amendment was the ‘best childminders could have hoped for’. ‘Childminders would value the opportunity to be consulted rather than pushing ahead with an idea that is woolly, under-developed and poorly thought out,’ she said.

Ms Heath said the current agency pilots that began in summer this year were unable to test the proposals adequately, because the Government had not yet agreed a model for the agencies. ‘If you’re piloting something you would imagine you already have a model in place. If you don’t know what your model is how can you regulate it?’ she said.

Her concerns were shared by childminder Sarah Neville at Knutsford Childminding. She said results from the pilots would be based on ‘very little evidence’, and agreed the Government had failed to consult childminders adequately. She suggested the Government had deliberately dismantled the support local authorities have traditionally provided, such as childminder networks, to force childminders to join agencies.

Baroness Hughes of Stretford unsuccessfully attempted to insert a clause into the bill to place current staff-to-child ratios in primary legislation. She said the Department for Education’s (DfE) recently published online survey about ratios had prompted her to request the amendment. Currently, the secretary of state has powers to change ratios.

‘There is suspicion about the motives behind the survey, particularly when, inevitably given its nature, the results will be random, unsystematic and potentially open to abuse,’ she said. ‘If at some point any future Government were to feel that it was evidence to support a change to ratios one way or the other, this issue is sufficiently important to require close parliamentary scrutiny and debate.’

Baroness Northover defended the DfE’s survey. She said its intention was to understand better why early years providers did not use full flexibility for three- and four-year-olds. ‘Social media was used for that; it is a cost-effective and quick method of gaining some responses that might help to inform that,’ she said. ‘It was limited. It was live for just under a week and received 260 replies.’

Pre-school Learning Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch said he was ‘very disappointed’ with the verdict. ‘The Government wants to lower childcare costs while improving the overall qualification level of the early years sector – which of course means higher wages – but as yet, has not been able to suggest any credible way of doing either that doesn’t involve relaxing ratios,’ he said. ‘As such, I can imagine that many in the sector will be rightly concerned by its hesitancy to embed current ratios within primary legislation.’

The committee also discussed plans for childcare providers to be able to request paid-for Ofsted inspections. Baroness Walmsley suggested removing the clause from the bill as childminders were unlikely to be able to afford re-inspection and costs could be transferred to parents. 

Baroness Northover said that childminding agencies could request re-inspection, but not childminders registered with them.

Speaking to Nursery World, childminder Sarah Neville commented, ‘It makes a mockery of the system to say we’re going to downgrade you, but you can pay for us to come back.’
The Children and Families Bill is currently at committee stage in the House of Lords.

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