The bringing up baby blues

Childminding is facing a major shake-up with the introduction of
a new set of minimum standards and Ofsted taking over registration
and regulation of childminders. However, as Frances Rickford
reports, some of the changes are controversial and many argue that
they are not in the best interests of children or the people that
look after them

Childminding is the most widely used and widely available form
of pre-school child care in Britain. There are nearly 90,000
registered childminders in England and Wales, looking after upwards
of 300,000 under-fives in their own homes.

Despite its popularity with parents, childminding still has a
slightly disreputable image compared with group child care. The
word “childminding” suggests a very low input form of child care,
and belies the increasing level of regulation, organisation and
professionalism that childminding is subject to.

From next month anyone who wants to become a childminder will
have to meet a new set of national minimum standards from the
Department for Education and Employment. The 24-page document
consists mainly of extremely basic tenets of child care practice
(such as “the childminder ensures the safe control of children
whilst out walking” and “children are not shaken”), but also
specifies that childminders must undertake some training, both in
first aid and in childminding practice. Most contentiously, it
allows childminders to smoke in children’s presence, and to smack
them, if parents agree.

As the National Childminding Association (NCMA)has forcefully
pointed out, this is a deeply perverse and possibly unworkable
decision by the government. It sets childminders apart from
everyone else who works with other people’s children, and in doing
so undermines their status. It flies in the face of good child care
practice, and is contrary to the principles both of the 1989
Children Act and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It also puts children in danger and opens childminders
themselves to uninsurable risks. Will childminders be smacking some
children in their care and not others, according to their parents’
wishes, and how will children themselves make sense of such
discrepancies? Or will the market divide into smacking and
non-smacking childminders? Who will be liable if a smack leads to a
fall which leads to a head injury? When does a smack become a
thump, or a beating? And what is the logic of allowing childminders
but not playgroup or nursery staff to hit children – especially as
childminders look after a much higher proportion of babies?

The new national standards come into force as Ofsted takes over
responsibility for the registration and regulation of childminders
-and other day care services -Êfrom local authority social
service departments. From July, local authorities will no longer do
new registrations, and from September Ofsted is due to begin its
inspection programme. To do the job Ofsted has established a new
branch, the early years directorate under Maggie Smith, formerly
Barnardo’s director of child care services. Childminders will still
be dealing with many of the same people after the transfer.
Currently about 1,000 staff are in the process of being transferred
from local authority employment to Ofsted, although the final list
will be approved by ministers after the election.

But the regime and the work of the staff themselves will be very
different after the change. Ofsted’s early years directorate will
not have any local offices, just eight regional centres for senior
managers and administrative staff, so its frontline staff will have
to work from home. They have been offered start-up costs to buy
themselves desks and chairs and install phone lines, and will meet
with local colleagues about once a fortnight in rooms rented for
the purpose.

The nature of their job will also change. As Ofsted employees
they will become “regulatory officers” and will no longer have any
role in providing support, advice or training to childminders –
only for registering and inspecting them. The ethos of the new
organisation will also be very different, with only two of the
eight regional directors having any background in social

Ofsted is now discovering that the transfer may not go as
smoothly as it hoped. Having drawn up the blueprint – including the
decision not to open local offices for frontline staff -last year,
it is facing deep opposition from the people involved. Owen Davies,
social services officer for Unison, explains: “Ofsted took the
decision before any consultation had taken place that inspectors
will be working from home. But some people just are not in a
position to do that, and they are very unhappy. We are still
looking at whether we can mount a challenge on legal grounds.

“We also feel, that is completely inappropriate in this sort of
service to separate the registration process from the support and
development role. It is just not natural to the people working with
childminders in local authorities to work in this way. The
development function will be retained by local authorities so a few
people will stay, but we are concerned that it will be tacked onto
something else and become an afterthought.”

The NCMA, despite its opposition to the smoking and smacking
provisions has welcomed the introduction of national standards, and
whatever its misgivings about the transfer of childminder
registration from local authorities to Ofsted, it is doing what it
can to ensure a smooth transition.

Gill Haynes, NCMA’s chief executive, says childminders have not
got an efficient service from local authorities. “From our members’
point of view it has always been inexplicable why one authority
should have one rule and the next a different rule. We’ve heard
stories about people who have had to wait 12 months to register and
then had to re-register under a different set of standards when
they’ve moved to another authority.”

Haynes points to the shortcomings found by the Social Services
Inspectorate in its report on childminding inspection and
registration published last autumn.1 The inspectorate
found that the regulation of care for the under-eights was “of
marginal importance” to senior managers and councillors, and that
many staff were isolated from other services. Record-keeping was
poor, and less than a third of all childminder registrations had
been completed within the three months required in Children Act

The Social Services Inspectorate also found that day nurseries
received disproportionately more attention during the assessment
process than childminders. The report suggests that the process of
making sure childminder applicants were “fit persons” was not
thorough enough, and alarmingly reports “an absence of clarity
about how to prevent unsuitable applicants from becoming

Haynes is optimistic that a national registration service will
at least mean that the delays and inconsistencies in the
registration of new childminders will no longer be hidden from
view, because Ofsted will have to report regularly on its own

The standards, she says, are an improvement on those applied by
many local authorities. “They are less focused on inputs, like how
high your garden fence is, and more focused on how people
demonstrate that they can look after children safely. And it is a
huge step forward that in England and Wales childminders will need
to have some training within six months of registering.”

She is worried though that with the transfer of registrations
from social service departments to Ofsted, the role of childminding
as a family support service to children in need may be

“One of the most important jobs childminders do is to support
children in the community, and local authorities should now be
setting up community childminding schemes if they haven’t already
done that.”

She suggests the schemes should be integrated into local early
years strategies, to make sure they don’t become stigmatised. Some
authorities have established co-ordinated networks of specially
trained and approved childminders under the Quality Protects
agenda. Elsewhere, with government backing, childminders are
supporting teenage mothers to go back to school and college.

A recent study2 found that many childminders see
childminding as a long-term career, and they see themselves as
professional child care workers. Childminding is still largely a
private arrangement between parent and provider, and in their
negotiations with parents – their customers -childminders have to
juggle their commitment to and affection for the children they look
after with the demands of running a small business.

The number of registered childminders has been falling steadily
over recent years, but Haynes believes the tide is now turning,
partly because the government introduced a system of start-up
grants for childminders to help them with initial costs. Even so,
it is hard to earn a decent living from childminding. “Affordable
child care” for parents inevitably means low pay for child carers
unless the cost is subsidised. In a buoyant labour market
experienced childminders with other options are likely to vote with
their feet, and a heavy-handed or officious regulatory regime could
make childminding less attractive still.

1 Lesley Moore, Whose Looking After the
Children? Inspection of Registration and Inspection Arrangements
for Under-Eights Day Care Services
, Department of Health,

2 Ann Mooney, Abigail Knight, Peter Moss and
Charley Owen, Who Cares? Childminding in the 1990s, Family
Policy Studies Centre, 2001

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