A model for failure?

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Childminder agencies are being rushed in despite fundamental flaws, argues Neil Leitch

As the debate over childminder agencies rages on, I imagine that many of you, like me, may be experiencing a distinct feeling of déjà vu.

It’s only been a few months since we as a sector celebrated our victory over ratios, and yet here we are again, faced with yet another policy that is intended to benefit practitioners, parents and children, but when scrutinised more closely, appears to fail on all fronts.

The primary aim behind agencies – removing barriers to entry into the childminding market – seems sensible enough at first glance. Childminders play a vital role in the provision of high-quality flexible childcare, so why wouldn’t we want to encourage more into the sector? But as is always the case with government policy, the devil is in the detail; and on the issue of agencies, that’s where things begin to unravel.

Only a few months ago, the government announced plans to "free" local authorities from their existing quality improvement role and make Ofsted the "sole arbiter of quality" in the early years. And yet, under agency plans, many childminders would no longer have any direct contact with the inspectorate – instead, only a sample would be inspected, while Ofsted’s main focus would be on inspecting the agencies themselves.

It’s not surprising that these proposals have met with such fierce opposition from the sector. The serious child protection and safeguarding concerns that such an approach raises are patently obvious – and let’s not forget that as agencies are primarily aimed at new childminders looking to enter the market, most agency-registered childminders are likely to be relatively inexperienced.

The DfE argues the risk attached to removing individual Ofsted inspections for agency-registered childminders will be 'mitigated by ensuring that agencies carry out a robust quality assurance role' – but with no further details on how this will work in practice, such a claim is of little comfort.

Indeed, while the government continues to cite the Netherlands as the main inspiration for the new agency model, it was only a few years ago that the Dutch national education inspectorate published a report in which it voiced its concerns about the ability of agency staff to provide adequate support for childminders. To simply emulate the Dutch model without first taking the time to address such a significant issue, then, is completely illogical, especially in light of the fact that Dutch deregulatory reforms (of which agencies were a part) saw the number of ‘unsatisfactory’ childminders rise from 6% in 2001 to 49% by 2008.

So why introduce agencies? Speaking at an Education Select Committee meeting on the topic of childminder inspections last year, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw admitted: 'I do not think we can carry on doing it as we are doing it at the moment: every time a youngster goes into a childminding setting, we have to inspect. That is unsustainable.' Could it be that the introduction of agencies is less to do with improving the availability and quality of childcare, and more to do with cutting costs for Ofsted?

It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with cutting costs for parents. In fact, during a House of Lords debate last month, it was revealed that education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss had openly stated that she expects the cost of the training and development of agency-registered childminders to be passed on to parents, as agencies will receive no government funding.

How often have we heard the Government say that tackling the rising cost of childcare in England is one of its key aims? And yet here they are, rushing through the implementation of a policy that, by their own admission, could result in increased childcare bills.

With agency trials due to start imminently, there are still so many unanswered questions. What happens if an ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ childminder joins an agency that subsequently receives a ‘requires improvement’ or even ‘inadequate’ judgement from Ofsted? Would this impact their eligibility for free entitlement funding? And if Ofsted decides, for whatever reason, that an agency cannot continue to operate, what happens to that agency’s registered childminders? The fundamental flaws in the proposal are plain to see and yet the plans are seemingly set to proceed regardless.

Once again we have found ourselves in a situation where childcare policy has been drafted and implemented with little or no consultation with the sector. In a report on childminder agencies published back in March, the government stated that the only alternatives to the current proposals were: a) doing nothing, or b) making agencies compulsory. The fact that no genuine alternative to this policy were even considered speaks volumes. Clearly, agencies were always going to be the answer.

We at the Alliance are very clear that we do not support the government’s agency model and are currently actively engaging in discussions on the plans through our ongoing involvement in the government’s Task and Finish Group, in order to ensure the concerns of our childminder members, and of all practitioners, are taken into consideration. The issue of how we as a sector are consulted and involved in decision-making is as relevant today as it ever was, and so it is vital that we continue to work together to make sure our voices are heard.

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