@Home Childcare has been very transparent about our support for the introduction of childminder agencies. This is not to say I do not have any concerns: like many people I am worried about the lack of funding, the diminished role of local authorities and the lack of clarity for independent childminders. However, I am more concerned about the maintaining the status quo, as this assumes that childminders should not have a choice in the way they receive training and support.
So why does @Home Childcare support the introduction of childminder agencies? Because the model for our quality development training and support services, @Home Childminding, which we launched in September 2012 for childminders in need of further training and support, has similarities to the childminder agency model the government are interested in enabling, and we know the model can work
We specialise in providing flexible childcare to families in need of part-time childcare to fit in with their working hours or study. Since our inception in 2005, we have employed, trained and Ofsted registered our home childcarers (nannies) and matched them to families in need of part-time childcare such as wraparound and out of hours care. We employ our home childcarers because we believe parents from all backgrounds, including low income parents who work shifts, should be able to access quality, flexible childcare to fit around their work or study. Being the end employer ourselves helps to make our childcare more affordable and accessible to parents, as we can offer more a comprehensive, on-going service.
Our sister company, @Home Childcare Training (@HCCT), is an accredited training provider of flexible, funded training in the form of pre-registration, qualification and CPD (Continuous Professional Development) We have been training home-based practitioners including childminders, since 2007, some of these years on behalf of local authorities, and have developed a close working relationship with those in our local vicinity. We understand the unique place childminders hold in the childcare sector and the issues they face as practitioners providing professional childcare in their own homes.
The decision to pilot support services to childminders was a natural progression of our childcare and training services in many ways. It was through the delivery of our childminder training programmes that we realised there was an emerging gap in support. Initially, we tried to fill the gap by giving informal support and compliance advice to our childminder learners, but the thinning of local authority services for childminders in some areas, spurred us to formalise our support through @Home Childminding, and so we began piloting further training and support services with our childminder learners.
So why disrupt the status quo? Because the present system assumes all childminders are the same in that it does not recognise the needs of childminders who would benefit from further support and training especially if they live in areas without funded LA support and training.
So far, the agencies debate has been led by outstanding and good childminders and some trade associations whose ardent protests are widely heard in social media and forums. These are childminders who wish to remain independent for good reason – they are confident, motivated, well-qualified, pro-active, self-sufficient and clearly feel passionate about maintaining their close links with their local authority and/or trade association. Importantly, they also tend to live in some of the more affluent areas which are still funding or subsidising their support.
However, the reality for some other childminders is different. Deepening LA cuts are responsible for skeletal or non-existent support for childminders in some areas. As a result, a gaping hole in support has appeared in some parts of the country where childminders, after the free mandatory local authority briefing, are signposted to organisations selling start up training and other on-going services, sometimes subsided and sometimes not funded at all.
Agencies could be the answer in filling the hole in support. The most obvious group of childminders to benefit would be prospective or relatively new childminders who feel ill equipped in their role. I know these childminders exist because some of them are learners who are training with @HCCT. Agencies would ensure new childminders benefit from more consistent support because they are obliged to provide quality development support in the form of mentoring, monitoring and training.
Agencies can contribute to the exciting prospect of more joined up childcare - different elements of the sector working together to provide further parental choice and continuous learning and care for children. It is well documented how little childminders earn. Some childminders would be interested in opportunities to increase their income during their quieter periods. This would involve more complementary models where childminders work with schools, nurseries and children centres to provide flexible childcare or provide cover which we all know childminders and home childcarers are ideally placed to offer. Excitingly, innovative agencies could be a pivotal model for leadership opportunities for childminders to share their wealth of knowledge, skills and good practice of providing sole charge childcare with less experienced practitioners in nurseries who may benefit from the wealth of knowledge childminders have to offer.
The shortage of childcare, including childminders, in disadvantaged areas is an issue that needs addressing. Agencies could make a demonstrative difference in disadvantaged communities ensuring childcare is fostered from the ground upwards by providing clearly structured development career pathway for prospective childminders. The progressive pathway could produce childcare leaders championing responsive childcare in their communities.
I cannot end this article without mentioning the cost issue. This is the main thrust of the argument against agencies – that agencies will be costly for childminders and, in turn, parents. In my mind, it is about doing things differently and turning the cost issue on its head. The cost of joining an agency is likely to cover the costs for things you are already paying out for such as training, Ofsted registration, Disclosure and Barring Service (formerly known as CRBs), CPD etc. The cost could also absorb some of the hidden expenses such as time taken to complete paperwork and to market your business etc. Consider it as the cost for different inclusive packages rather than paying for things separately.
We appreciate there is a lot of confusion about agencies. Although we are participating in the Department of Education’s childminder agency trials, we are not an agency, as yet, as the earliest we can fulfil the full role of agencies is September 2014 if/when agencies are approved by parliament. Like any business starting a new service, we do not intend to publish our full agency prices until we have tested other key requirements of agencies such as regulation.
We know there are childminders out there who support the idea of what agencies can offer. Some of them are our childminder learners. At our Choices for Childminders event in July we presented our further training and support model to childminders who were opposed to the idea. After they heard some facts and detail of our model, it is true to say every childminder in the room changed their minds. This is not to claim they would all join an agency tomorrow. Their responses varied from some childminders saying they would consider joining an agency to others who voiced their intention to remain independent but also recognised the value of agencies for new childminders entering the profession. One thing is for certain, childminders need more objective information about agencies so they can fully understand the choices available to them.
At the heart of our support for agencies is the notion of choice. I welcome change; it gives childminders more choice, something, I believe, that has been missing for many years. This is why our mantra is ‘choices for childminders’, allowing you the choice to do things differently, if you wish to. You can choose to access quality development training and support to develop your practice, professional identity and career, whether as an alternative, addition or simply as your main service. So if choice means shaking up the status quo, I am definitely in favour of it!