The government is trying to persuade lone parents to become
childminders. But is the policy in their – or their
children’s – best interests. Kate Coxon reports.
Problem: the government is committed to reducing child poverty
and the main plank of its strategy is to get poor parents into paid
work. But a shortage of affordable child care is preventing many of
them from finding jobs.
Solution: get poor parents to become childminders, thus
providing themselves with an income and other parents with cheap
This is the idea behind a pilot project launched in June. The
childminder buddying scheme will use existing childminders in five
urban areas to attract new people into childminding and to help
them to register and set up in business.
This latest boost to childminding underlines the
government’s commitment to child care expansion as part of
its welfare to work programme. Announcing the pilots, work and
pensions secretary Andrew Smith said the scheme would help boost
the supply of childminders to benefit all parents. He added that it
also offered parents the opportunity to get into work by opening
their own business as a registered childminder. “This will help us
with our goal to help more parents, in particular lone parents into
work and put an end to cycles of poverty,” he said.
Rarely has killing two birds with one stone been more explicit.
On the one hand, there is the child care shortage and the
government’s desire to resolve it and meet the targets of its
1998 national child care strategy. The Department for Education and
Skills’ regular survey which analyses demand for child care
showed that a quarter of all families (or approximately 1.3
million) reported not being able to find a child care place when
they needed it.
On the other hand, there is the pledge to reduce child poverty
and to get 70 per cent of lone parents into employment by 2010.
Welfare to work policies mean that child care and early education
are bound up with work and benefits.
The government is committed to the increasing
professionalisation of childminders – the recent move to ban
smoking and smacking by childminders is evidence of this.
Opportunities for training and professional development have also
increased. And in June the National Childminding Association
launched NCMA Quality First, a quality assurance scheme specially
designed for individual childminders, which gives them the
opportunity to develop and improve the quality of the care they
provide to children.
Gill Haynes, chief executive of the NCMA, believes that the
pathfinder buddying schemes will offer greater levels of support to
new childminders as well as career progression for those
co-ordinating and providing the support. “This measure shows that
there is a career structure within childminding. This is not a dead
end career: we need to make sure that the benefits of childminding
as a career are made clearly, widely and readily available to
anyone returning to work, including lone parents. It is an
excellent opportunity to look after your own children while
receiving a professional training and qualifications”.
Encouraging lone parents to move into paid child care work is
not a new idea and for many parents childminding does offer a
satisfying opportunity to work flexibly from home and still spend
time with their own children.
But in spite of measures to boost the status of the profession,
it does not seem to be a popular job. Numbers of childminders have
declined steadily over the past decade. In 1992, there were 109,200
childminders, in 2001 there were 72,300 and the most recent
figures, published in June by Ofsted show that there are 68,200
registered childminders in England and Wales offering 300,600 child
Gill Haynes points out that there might be more to these data
than meets the eye. “The figures from the early 1990s were not
robust. Since responsibility moved from health to education, data
collection has become more rigorous”. She believes that changes
associated with the transfer to Ofsted led some childminders to
give it up. But she adds that the childminding community is
stabilising, with some recent success in recruitment and
There is little indication so far that lone parents are moving
into child care work in large numbers. The recent report, the
Evaluation of the New Deal for Lone Parents, showed that
only 5 per cent of lone parents were employed in the field of child
care. And organisations representing lone parents are cautious
about encouraging them to become childminders. A spokesperson for
the National Council for One Parent Families says that childminding
could work well for some lone parents. “However, many others are
struggling for jobs that offer career progression, decent pay and
the prospect of advancement.” She adds that working in an adult
workplace appeals to many lone parents who might otherwise feel
A spokesperson from Gingerbread highlighted similar concerns.
“Lone parents tell us that their main issues are financial
difficulties and social isolation. It is important that work pays
enough to lift them and their children out of poverty. Income from
child care work can be low and this should be raised to reflect the
responsible and important nature of the work.”
There is a danger that lone parents could simply swap the
benefit poverty trap for a working poverty trap. And there are
other issues. Lone parents need child care in order to work, but
they are often unable to find it or pay for it. Research by the
DfES has found that 63 per cent of non-working mothers and 78 per
cent of non-working lone mothers would prefer to go out to work or
study if they had good quality and affordable child care.
The same survey found that 30 per cent of non-working lone
mothers cite the lack of affordable child care as a reason for not
being able to work. Not surprising when the average cost of a
full-time nursery place for a child under two is £128 a week
(more than £6,650 a year) and for a full-time place with a
childminder for a child under two it is £118. In London and
the South East the cost of a nursery place can be much higher –
typically £168 in Inner London or over £8,730 a year.
Some of this is now covered by the child care element of the
child tax credit – up to 70 per cent of registered child care costs
up to a maximum of £135 for one child, or £200 for two or
more children. But finding that first 30 per cent puts formal child
care beyond the reach of many, especially lone parents. A report
from the parliamentary work and pensions select committee of MPs
published in June acknowledged this and recommended raising the
percentage of costs covered.
“We really need to examine the issues and recognise that lone
parents need child care to provide them with a range of career
pathways”, says Megan Pacey, policy officer at the Daycare Trust.
“Being a childminder might not be the employment option that lone
parents are looking for, given that they already have caring
responsibilities 24/7. They need child care and they
shouldn’t necessarily have to provide this themselves.”
The NCMA wants childminding to be seen as a career of choice,
but the problems of availability and affordability of child care
for working parents might mean that for some parents, providing
their own child care through childminding is their only chance of
paid work. Some believe that encouraging lone parents to register
as childminders is a way of formalising and quality-controlling the
existing informal arrangements that are commonplace.
There are inconsistencies in the government’s approach. It
wants to help low earners with registered child care costs, but
childminders are unable to claim the child care costs within the
child tax credit for looking after their own children, even though
their children are counted in terms of ratios and taking up a child
care place. Childminders would have to place their children with
another registered child care provider to claim these costs.
There are many questions, but there is widespread agreement on
what is needed – more children’s centres, and fast. The
Daycare Trust and the NCMA agree that children’s centres are
the best way of supporting and promoting childminding – and the
work and pensions select committee concluded that the
children’s centre model is the most effective way to reduce
Children’s centres are also the best option for lone
parents, according to Gingerbread. “We’d like to see
children’s centres in every neighbourhood with facilities to
bring childminders together to exchange experience and resources
and achieve qualifications, which would mean raising the status and
income of the child care workforce.”
- Buddying scheme pilots will operate in London, Birmingham,
Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds during 2003-2004 and will be
extended to all local authorities from 2004.
- The scheme gives established childminders the opportunity to
share their experience with new recruits, reducing drop-out rates
through the early days of registration.
- Bursaries of up to £500 will be available from September
to childminders who act as buddies
- From September 2003 childminders with “appropriate levels of
training and experience” will be able to care for more than two
children under one year.
- Childminders are usually registered to look after up to three
children under five and three children aged five to eight,
including their own children.
Child care and child poverty
- There are 600,000 children under three living in poverty and
only 42,740 free or subsidised places for disadvantaged
- There is only one subsidised child care place for every
fourteen children under three living in poverty.
- In 2001 there was one child care place for every seven children
under the age of 8; there is now one place for every five children
under the age of eight.
- Child care partnership managers are in every Jobcentre Plus
district, identifying the needs of Jobcentre Plus customers.
- Ofsted figures (June 2003) showed that there are 68,200
childminders offering 300,600 places and 9,600 full daycare
providers offering 383,200 places.