Opinion: The Minister's view - Commitment, clarity and consultation

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Some contentious current issues in the childcare sector are addressed by children's minister Dawn Primarolo.

When we reflect upon the investment in and reforms to childcare and early years over the past ten years, I'm sure you will agree that the sector has been completely transformed. Around £4bn was spent on under-fives in 2007/08, up from around £1bn in 1997, and more than 3,100 Children's Centres have opened, providing services for almost 2.4 million children and their families.

Unfortunately, the recent spate of stories in the national media has not reflected these vast improvements and has led to widespread confusion about the sector on the whole.

I wish to take this opportunity to discuss the three biggest areas of concern: childcare vouchers, the Early Years Single Funding Formula, and reciprocal childcare. These issues have been widely debated by Nursery World readers, and from recent conferences and visits I know they are at the forefront of your concerns.

First, childcare vouchers. I wish to reassure you the Government is listening to the concerns of the workforce, voucher providers and parents. The Prime Minister and Chancellor have committed to giving an update on how this policy will unfold in the Pre-Budget Report and I continue to work closely with my Cabinet colleagues on this issue. We do not want to penalise hard-working families.

Second, I am very aware that any changes to funding arrangements can cause anxiety in the short-term. However, I must stress that the Early Years Single Funding Formula was categorically not designed to increase the profit margins of PVI nurseries, or to close state-maintained nurseries. You will have seen from last month's Nursery World that I have been quite explicit on this issue with local authorities and have asked them to use this period of ongoing consultation to hear your views and to incorporate them into their planning. The nine pilot areas have already successfully implemented the formula, and the feedback we have received is that it is working well. I hope that by working in partnership with local authorities, early years providers will see that this success can be mirrored across the country.

Finally, the issue of Ofsted's involvement in reciprocal childcare arrangements generated a great deal of concern for providers and families this year. It was never the Government's intention to intervene in informal childcare arrangements between friends where no money changes hands. Children's secretary Ed Balls has agreed with Ofsted that such arrangements should no longer require registration, and to strengthen this commitment, we plan to clarify the law in this area. This week, I am launching a consultation on the proposed changes and would welcome your views.

At the same time, I would like to reiterate the Government's commitment to supporting the invaluable role that childminders play in providing early learning and care in a home environment in communities up and down the country.

I wish to end this, my last column of 2009, by thanking you all for your hard work. With improving Ofsted inspection results, the brilliant EYFS Profile results and your continued determination to raise the quality of childcare, children are getting invaluable support in their all-important early years. I hope you all have a peaceful festive break and wish you all the best for 2010.

The consultation on reciprocal childcare can be found at: www.dcsf.gov.uk/consultations

Information about the EYSFF is available at: http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/everychildmatters/earlyyears/fundingreform/ fundingreform.

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