Mind the drop!

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Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, calls for action to stop the decline in childminder numbers

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Imagine that you ran a huge company, with thousands of employees. Now imagine that workers in one particular department in your company started to voice their unhappiness about their payment, conditions and general treatment. Imagine that you largely ignored those concerns and as a result, lost nearly a quarter over that department’s workforce over the course of four years.

I think that, in such a situation, it would be fair to say that you were a pretty rubbish boss. And yet, that’s exactly what’s currently happening in the early years sector.

The latest Ofsted early years statistics reveal that the number of childminders in the sector has fallen by a huge 23 per cent since August 2012. That’s a fall from more than 57,000 to less than 44,000. How has this been allowed to happen?

It’s not as though no-one was aware this was happening. Childminder numbers have been slowly but steadily declining for years, and we at the Alliance have repeatedly called on the Department for Education to do more to tackle this trend. And yet, for years, the government chose instead to focus almost exclusively on childminder agencies, a complete damp squib of an initiative that did nothing to address childminder concerns.

In fact, to date, two-and-a-half years after they were launched, there are still just nine agencies, only one of which has even been inspected by Ofsted.

More recently, small positive steps – such as the move to monthly funding payments – have been taken by government, but clearly there’s much more to be done to ensure that childminders are better supported.

If the early years has typically been the ‘Cinderella’ of the education system – overlooked and undervalued – then it’s fair to say that is particularly true of childminders.

Because despite being a sector of experienced, quality practitioners, both Ofsted-registered and EYFS-compliant, far too often, childminders are still being labelled as little more than glorified babysitters – a misrepresentation that is as insulting as it is inaccurate. Who can forget former Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw’s shameful assertion that young children from disadvantaged backgrounds should 'go to a school-based nursery, not the local childminder'?

And so, on top of the significant challenges facing the early years sector as a whole – not least, the issue of inadequate funding – childminders also have to deal being belittled, if not erased from the early years debate altogether.

The Alliance is proud to represent all parts of the early years sector: nurseries, pre-schools and childminders. And yet, I know that almost every time we put out a statement referring generally to ‘childcare providers’, the national press will almost always replace this with ‘nurseries’, as if other types of provision don’t even exist.

It’s not hard to see why childminders might feel completely fed up, and it’s clear that more must be done to ensure that they are promoted alongside nurseries and pre-schools, not behind them.

I know that one significant ongoing issue for childminders is the continued restriction on providing funded provision to related children. The latest local authority statutory guidance confirmed that 'government funding cannot be claimed by, or spent on, childminders providing childcare for their own child or a related child, even if they are claiming for other children', even though this has been continually raised by childminders as a barrier to delivery.

The Alliance is currently in discussions with the Department for Education on this issue, and while we know any change to this rule won’t be quick or easy (as it means amending the Childcare Act 2006), it’s clear that this is an area where the government can demonstrate a real commitment to ensuring that childminders and group providers are operating on a level playing field. 

The DfE knows as well as I do that childminders are a vital part of the early years sector. On behalf of our childminder members, and those operating in the sector more generally, I urge the government not to continue to ignore this problem. We are lucky enough in this country to have the extensive network of experienced, high-quality independent childminders – 91per cent of whom are now rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. Let’s not lose them.

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