On the first day that childminder agencies could register with Ofsted (1 September), the Department for Education (DfE) released further details about how they should operate, following months of speculation.
Nursery World is aware of just one agency, St Bede Academy, that has registered with the inspectorate so far. An Ofsted spokesperson was unable to confirm the number of childminder agencies that have registered so far because the information would not provide an accurate picture, given that the registration process can take up to 16 weeks.
Sam Gyimah, childcare and education minister, said, 'The first agencies can now register with Ofsted and I'm delighted to see Jack Hatch on behalf of St Bede's childcare, the first in the country to do so.'
Despite the sector's concerns surrounding the quality assurance of childminders, the DfE's Step by Step guide reveals that childminder agencies will not be required to share reports on the standard of care provided by their childminders to prospective parents.
The non-statutory guidance states that following a quality assurance visit, the agency must produce a written report of the visit that must be made available to the childminder and to the parents of any child receiving provision with them.
However, it says agencies do not have to share these reports with prospective parents, but may choose to do so on request as it may assist parents in their selection of a childminder.
Agencies will have to include details of these arrangements in their 'statement of purpose' when registering with Ofsted.
PACEY and the Pre-School Learning Alliance (PLA) have expressed concern that prospective parents won't get to see quality assurance reports.
Victoria Flint, head of communications at PACEY, said, 'The fact that childminder agencies won't be required to share quality assurance reports publicly risks prospective parents being unable to easily access information about childminder quality.
'These reports must be made as accessible as possible in order to provide information on quality for families looking to use agency-registered childminders, as well as ensuring transparency and accountability of the inspection process. In PACEY's view, Ofsted's impartial, publicly available inspection judgements of individual childcare providers remain the most effective way to reflect the quality of care for parents.'
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the PLA, added, 'The fact that agencies aren't required to make quality assurance visit reports available to parents suggests that the DfE has completely misunderstood what it is that parents look for in a childminder.
'They want someone they can trust to look after their child and provide high-quality care and learning, not just someone who is conveniently located or offers suitable hours, as the DfE seems to believe.'
The publication of the DfE's guidance follows the release of Ofsted's framework for the regulation of childminder agencies at the end of August and its Childminder Agency Handbook.
Both Ofsted and the DfE's documents outline how childminder agencies will be inspected, how they will support childminders with continuous professional development and ensure quality assurance, ways that agencies can interact with providers, parents and other bodies/agencies, and how children will be kept safe from harm.
- Newly registered agencies will receive an inspection by Ofsted any time after registration.
- Ofsted will visit a sample of an agency's registered childminders to assess the quality of support being offered.
- The cycle of inspections of agencies will be set out by the secretary of state in a letter to the chief inspector.
The PLA remains 'extremely concerned' about the potential safeguarding implications of the current childminder agency inspection plans.
Chief executive Neil Leitch said, 'Sir Michael Wilshaw previously stated that "inspection is just too important for Ofsted to simply have oversight of third-party arrangements", and yet this is exactly the model that Ofsted is proposing with the introduction of agencies.
'This is particularly concerning in light of the fact that there are very few restrictions on who can register as an agency. Plans for Ofsted to inspect a "sample" of registered childminders as part of agency inspections provide little reassurance, as the aim of such visits will be to assess the quality of support being offered by the agency, not the quality of care being provided by the childminder.'
He added, 'It's clear that, if the agency model is to have any chance of succeeding in the long term, a much more robust approach to the inspection and quality assurance is needed.'
Continued professional development and practice support
Agencies will have to provide each 'early years childminder' with 20 hours of practice support, 16 hours of which must be continuous professional development (CPD).
However, 34 per cent of respondents to the DfE's consultation on childminder agencies and local authority support, published last month, stated that 16 hours of CPD is not enough.
CPD can include one-off training courses, conference attendance, peer support from colleagues, practice and policy briefings, and preparing for quality assurance/inspection.
Agencies must ensure that any training is delivered by a person with the 'appropriate skills and expertise'.
The DfE states that practice support could comprise of an agency working with a childminder to ensure that they have the relevant materials in relation to the learning and development and welfare requirements of the EYFS. It could also include support on specific issues such as safeguarding, health and safety, risk assessment and invoicing.
There is flexibility on how agencies meet the requirement to offer practice support. An example given by the DfE is that when an agency provides a training session or online learning programme for all its childminders this could count towards it meeting the requirements.
Quality assurance assessment
In the first year of registration, an agency must conduct a minimum of two visits per year to each early years childminder's home, at least one of which should be unannounced.
Thereafter, agencies are required to conduct a minimum of one visit per year, but may conduct more if they wish, for instance if they have concerns about a childminder.
This goes against the view of 53 per cent of respondents to the DfE's consultation on childminder agencies who disagreed that one quality assurance visit is adequate.
Agencies have the freedom to determine the content of their quality assurance. However, for early years childminders this must include an assessment against delivery of the EYFS. Agencies can decide if they want to rate or grade childminders, and what scale or system to use.
Childminder agency staff making quality assurance visits to childminders' homes are not required to hold particular qualifications or skills.
But the advice from the DfE is that when deploying individuals to particular roles, including quality assurance, agencies will want to consider carefully if there is a need for staff to have a number of the following:
- a relevant qualification, such as a Level 3, a degree and/or equivalent professional qualification;
- a minimum number of years' 'successful and relevant' experience;
- a minimum number of years' 'successful and substantial' management experience in the relevant area;
- substantial knowledge and relevant experience of the EYFS.
A wide range of experience within the relevant area, for example in more than one setting.
CASE STUDY: TOTAL CHILDCARE SERVICES, EAST SUSSEX
A new childminder agency that will provide a package of childcare to meet the needs of parents who work atypical hours and shifts is set to launch in the next few months.
Total Childcare Services will offer parents bespoke childcare packages combining daycare provision at its nursery, opening later this year in Battle, and care provided by childminders or home carers, similar to a nanny. There will also be the option to use just the nursery, which will provide 53 childcare places, a childminder or home carer.
While the nursery setting will best suit local families, it is intended for childcare packages to be available across East Sussex.
Managing director Nick Porter told Nursery World the company is hoping to appeal to NHS and other emergency services workers in the area who may struggle to find childcare to match their shifts.
On the qualifications of staff, he said, 'Childminders and nursery practitioners will hold a minimum of a Level 3 qualification, while home carers will have at least a Level 2. We will consider taking on staff with lower qualifications and supporting them with training. All staff will have to be flexible to meet the needs of parents.'