It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of a childminder’s job. They are responsible for the safety of someone infinitely precious, and provide some of their vital early years education. Good childminders give parents peace of mind and allow them to consider pursuing a career safe in the knowledge that their son or daughter is in good hands.
Quality childcare is something that any government should prioritise, and childminders are an essential component – many families rely on the flexibility they offer, others depend on them in places where nursery provision is limited, and some simply prefer home-based care. This is proving harder and harder to come by as the number of childminders has fallen dramatically in the last 20 years, putting a good childminder out of reach of many parents.
I am as eager to encourage talented people to enter the profession as I am that great childminders shouldn’t leave it. That’s why we are introducing childminder agencies, which will be one-stop shops and offer a far simpler route into the job.
Someone who is interested will be able to go along to a local agency which will check out their premises, provide training, and – if they’re good enough – give them the stamp of approval. The agencies will also deal with government funding, market services, place children, collect fees from parents and offer cover if a childminder falls ill. The agencies themselves will be regulated by Ofsted.
This change will enormously help professionals, parents and children alike. Similar organisations in France and the Netherlands have proven successful, and those countries have many more childminders (relative to population) than we do in England.
Networks of childminders, nurseries and schools have all expressed a keen interest in running agencies. We will pilot them in September 2013 and I hope that they will be fully operational a year later. Childminders can choose to join these agencies or continue to operate independently.
A further simplification will also help families and childminders. Where an agency or independent childminder has been approved by Ofsted, they will be able to offer funded provision for three and four-year-olds without the need to jump through additional hoops at local authority level.
The current system is needlessly complicated and burdensome. More importantly, the change will mean that more money gets to the front line and that professionals are able to focus on their actual job – looking after children. And it will be a major step forward in allowing childminders to be treated on a par with nurseries.
Where a childminder or an agency is judged by Ofsted to be "good" or "outstanding", they will be able to offer places for two-year-olds without the need for additional local authority approval.
We are also planning to allow professional childminders more flexibility. Within the existing overall limit of six we are proposing that childminders can look after one additional child under the age of five. That means raising the limit from three to four children under five of which no more than two are under one.
This maximum limit would bring us in line with France and is fewer than the maximum of five children under the age of five allowed in Denmark, Ireland and Germany. The purpose of this is to give trusted professionals more flexibility, and it will be up to them whether they use it.
The status-quo does not help childminders to meet children’s needs. One childminding couple I met in Thetford in my constituency look after six children between them. Because of the current rules, if one of them needs to buy a pint of milk at a shop around the corner, they have to take along three children.
The existing ratio of one child under the age of one per childminder means that twins are a no-no without special permission. And there is very little scope to manage if one parent is late picking up their child, which is why an additional allowance will be given to manage changeover periods.
I know that there are superb childminders right across the country. They have my heartfelt thanks. Our plans will make it easier for them to do their job, will entice the next generation of childminders to choose a profession which is demanding and worthwhile in equal measure, will make more money available where it’s really needed, and will make life easier, safer and better for parents and children.