Children and Families Bill

Memorandum submitted by Rebecca Martland (CF 88)

Children & Families Bill 2013

1. I am an Ofsted Registered Childminder, graded ‘Outstanding’ at my last two inspections. I hold qualified teacher status and am an accredited EYP, providing mentoring and coaching for colleagues in the Childminding community. I also supply training services and support as a freelance tutor. I previously spent 18months as a Childminding Network Co-ordinator for a pilot Childminding network prior to their roll-out county wide. I registered in 2000 through what was then the Social Services Registration and Inspection Unit, and I received annual inspections plus on-going support via this service. I have seen and embraced many changes since then, including: the advent of Ofsted; the introduction of quality assurance schemes such as NCMA Quality First & Children Come First Childminding Networks; increased LA support & training; the opportunity to become accredited to deliver funded EYE places; the introduction of various early years curriculums, including most recently the revised EYFS 2012. Change is not easy and not always for the better but having experienced major changes in the past 12 years I can honestly say that I believe these have driven the transformation of the Childminding sector into one which can now genuinely sit alongside other Registered Early Years & Childcare providers as equals in professionalism and quality. I say this as I want to make it clear that I am pro-change before I explain why I think Childminder agencies are a poor idea and will not provide the solutions to the issues they have been created to tackle.

2. I am unhappy that there has been no public consultation regarding the need or desire for Childminder Agencies and that they are being presented to us as a fait accompli. I believe that the way agencies are being introduced is undemocratic and underhand.

3. The Children and Families Bill 2013 introduces ‘enabling’ legislation that gives power for Childminding Agencies to be created, registered and inspected by Ofsted. It does not provide any reference or reassurance regarding the guarantee of the current system of registration and inspection continuing in a reasonable and realistic way for those Childminders who wish to remain independent. Although this is referred to in supporting documentation I am concerned that in the long term independent Childminders may be forced to join an agency through indirect consequences of their introduction such as unaffordable registration and inspection fees; Government marketing of the advantages of choosing agency Childminders and advertising these; loss of LA support through diminished funding; untenable increases in the cost of training as this is diverted to agencies and LAs lose funding or in-house training staff; etc. How will Government ensure that independent Childminders are not discriminated against or disadvantaged compared to agency Childminders and that they continue to be fully supported in terms of marketing & advertising; training and CPD; drop-ins; access to Toy Libraries and Children’s Centre services; access to business support services; access to quality improvement schemes and childcare support officers? Will Government commit to ensuring that the promotion and support of independent Childminders is given equal weight to that of agency Childminding and that Government marketing will be impartial?

4. I would like to see a clause inserted into the bill that will provide protection for the the equality of independent Childminders and ensures they will not be disadvantaged or discriminated against in comparison to agency Childminders or other childcare providers.

5. Agencies purport to address a number of perceived ‘problems’ in the Childminding sector but these so called ‘problems’ appear to have been misunderstood, misinterpreted or do not actually exist:

6. In terms of finding Childminders and information about Childminders, many of the issues quoted have been addressed and resolved already. The Family Information Service (FiS) has been overhauled and provides a comprehensive method of finding childcare, working alongside private services such as those offered by local Childminding Group Vacancy Co-ordinators, PACEY’s collaboration with i-Child, and websites such as Childcare.co.uk, not to mention the availability of Childminders’ own websites which is rapidly expanding. Information about the quality of Childminders has become more widely available, with many Childminders now giving permission for their names to be published on the Ofsted website with their reports in addition to the information provided by the FiS. I believe one of the biggest barriers to increasing the uptake of Childminder services is not lack of information regarding how to find a Childminder but rather the negative perception of Childminding in comparison to group care held by many parents, in particular regarding safeguarding issues. Rather than creating agencies the Government should focus on a campaign to raise awareness of using Childminders in terms of their quality; flexibility; and safety.

7. In terms of quality, there are numerous references to the long period between Ofsted inspections with no formal quality assurance taking place in between, and Ofsted’s work being duplicated by LAs. The proposal is that agencies will drive up quality by providing on-going monitoring, assessment, support and training and LA’s will be freed of their quality burdens. Firstly this is in direct conflict with the stated aim of Ofsted becoming the sole arbiter of quality, as agencies will then fulfil this role too. Secondly it is based on inaccurate information. LAs do NOT duplicate Ofsted’s role as Ofsted ONLY provide assessment of quality whilst the LA remit is far broader. Also, there IS quality assurance, support and training already in place, and provided very effectively in most areas by dedicated, expert Local Authority Early Years teams. Agencies will be duplicating what is currently available. Admittedly LA services are sketchy and not consistently good in all areas (though the majority offer excellent services and agency support would be equally patchy given they will be market driven so not universally available and accessible to all Childminders) but surely, rather than create a whole new middle man to resolve this issue it would be more cost effective and practical to standardise clarify and enforce the LA role and responsibilities, so making good use of the infrastructure and expertise already in place? Existing Childminding Networks (which are a well-established, highly effective quality assurance scheme) could be expanded to encompass all Childminders in an LA area, providing access to information sessions and registration support; business support; early years education funding; training and development; mentoring, coaching and support; quality improvement and assessment; child-Childminder matching (complimenting existing services); etc. These are services already in place in most areas and therefore in my view negate the argument in favour of agencies. In addition, the proposal for agency inspection is that Ofsted will inspect the quality of the services it provides not the quality of care and education delivered by its members. This will create inconsistencies as parents will not be able to make direct comparisons of quality using Ofsted reports for agency Childminders, independent Childminders and other providers, creating a confusing two-tier system.

8. Agencies are supposed to alleviate the costs and burdens of setting up & running a business as a Childminder which will then attract new Childminders into the profession. Having read the ‘Statement of Policy Intention’ and Evidence Pack I note that the process of registration and accompanying requirements for registering with an agency will be the same as for registering independently with the Chief Inspector therefore the paperwork and costs will be similar to now, and potentially increased as the Agency may have its own membership paperwork requirements. Other elements such as insurance take only minutes to arrange and are already available and competitively priced via major childcare representatives such as PACEY, Morton Michel and UKCMA. Business accounts can be time consuming but there are a number of accountants now offering specialist services to Childminders at a reasonable cost, as well as dedicated accounting spread sheets that enable Childminders keep on top of their accounts with ease and the online annual Tax Return is very straightforward. Regarding other paperwork, policies are unique to each setting so again this is not paperwork which an agency could provide, nor is the main source of paperwork namely that associated with the EYFS (dramatically reduced already with the introduction of the revised EYFS 2012). Childminders fees and expenses vary depending upon the unique services they offer which again would make it difficult for an agency to manage. If an agency chose to employ a Childminder rather than the current self-employment practice there will be many complex issues to consider, in particular how a Childminder will be paid for expenses and wear and tear.

9. Other concerns include: how a Childminder might be recompensed if an Agency handled fees on the Childminder’s behalf but became bankrupt or acted fraudulently? How will a member be protected if their Agency closes for whatever reason? Will agencies will drive up the cost of Childminding services as Childminders will need to accommodate the cost of agency membership (I have heard suggestions of around £700 pa which is about £500 more than my current annual expenditure on registration requirements which include registration fee, First Aid, ICO registration, LA training subscription and insurance) in their fees? In who’s interest would an agency act in the event of a dispute or complaint, Childminder or parent, and who would mediate? Will agency Childminders have any protection against agencies setting unfair or restrictive terms of membership such as fee capping, requirement to fill all registered spaces, inability to choose clients? How will the Government ensure all Childminders have access to support services as agencies will only open in areas of demand and sustainability so will not be universally available and LA support will be scaled back due to reduced funding?

10. I am concerned about the potential organisations being suggested to run agencies. How can a Childminder expect an impartial service if the agency is run by a direct competitor such as a nursery? Surely this presents a conflict of interest as if the nursery has vacancies it will want to fill these rather than those of the Childminders. How can LAs, schools and Children’s Centres run agencies if agencies are being introduced as businesses?

11. I am concerned to note that in the Evidence Pack the only other measures considered to resolve the perceived problems around Childminding were ‘do nothing’ and ‘make agency membership compulsory’. I have already outlined above how the agency model duplicates that provided by LAs and other support networks such as local groups, FiS and private organisations. Why was a strengthening of the LA support and quality improvement role not considered? If LA services were clarified and a code of practice created determining a minimum level of service to be offered consistently throughout the country there would be no need for the introduction of a new middle man in the form of agencies. This would retain all the investment made to date in developing quality improvement schemes and staff expertise. I believe that agency legislation should be removed completely from this bill, pending a full consultation and investigation into alternative measures.

12. I believe, however, that this will not happen as I see the creation of agencies as not really being about increasing Childminder numbers and quality but about cost saving measures, in particular, Ofsted cost saving measures. Childminders are more expensive to register and inspect than group care (though how an annual invoice and a 3-hour inspection every four years can possibly cost Ofsted £350 a year I am at a loss to understand). If Ofsted only have to inspect an agency once every 3-4 years this will potentially be more cost effective. Having said that, as the inspection will involve sampling Childminder members it could potentially take all day and involve more complex paperwork and assessment than that of a group care inspection, so the possible savings may not be as much as suggested.

13. Whilst I can accept the potential benefits of Childminding agencies in terms of the services they will offer to Childminders (albeit duplicating existing services that can be easily accessed already, as described above), particularly to new Childminders and those who are wary of being self-employed, I remain fundamentally opposed to any agency model that does not allow for all Childminders to continue to be individually inspected by Ofsted. Whilst I do not claim to enjoy such inspections I appreciate their worth in reassuring parents that their children will be safe and receiving quality care. They also provide parents with a consistent method of judging the quality of providers across the sector. I believe it would be a huge, retrograde step to remove individual inspection from any Childminders, irrespective of what quality scheme they belong to.

14. In conclusion I believe that agencies are unnecessary. They will create an additional layer of bureaucracy and that they will be unsustainable in the long term. Agencies will duplicate existing services at higher cost with no guarantee of higher quality. They will drive up costs of childcare to parents and create a confusing two-tier system of registration and inspection. Given however, that I believe agencies will be implemented in spite of this, I believe there needs to be a very thorough analysis of the implications of agencies to parents, children, existing and future Childminders (independent and agency), LA teams, other childcare providers, and Ofsted and the results of this should inform a public consultation. The introduction of agencies should be delayed until September 2015 at the earliest giving time for consultation and pilots to be effectively evaluated. I also believe that retaining individual Ofsted inspections for all Childminders is essential in order to maintain standards and ensure quality that can be judged consistently across the whole childcare sector.  

April 2013

Prepared 19th April 2013