Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Childminders and agencies - the story so far...

Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw announced, in March 2012, that it was becoming too expensive to inspect childminders. This was the first indication of the changes ahead...

In her paper ‘Affordable Quality’, published in May, 2012, Elizabeth Truss suggested that all childminders should be de-regulated from Ofsted and Local Authority control and linked instead with agencies which would be newly created through the country.

There was an outcry!

Papers were written such as ‘Childminders in the Netherlands’ a policy briefing by the Daycare Trust to de-bunk the ‘Affordable Quality’ deregulation model and show that it had failed in other countries. At the same time, established Ofsted registered childminders made it very clear via petitions, letter writing and campaigns that they did not want agencies. Childminders told Government that they wanted to say independent of agency control and continue receiving individual Ofsted inspections and gradings.

Over the next few months, all around us, we saw things changing - Local Authority budgets for early years and childminder support services were being slashed, childminder support coordinators were losing their jobs, toy libraries were closing down... and then the Government published another paper - ‘More Great Childcare’.

It became clear very quickly on reading the ‘More Great Childcare’ plan that Ms Truss had listened to us! Yes, she had ploughed on with the plan to establish agencies for childminders... but she reassured us that agencies would be optional for established childminders.

Childminders started to consider how the introduction of agencies might affect their businesses and they very quickly grew concerned and began asking questions... but no answers were forthcoming - maybe because Government did not have any answers for us at the time or maybe they were unwilling to tell us, preferring to drip feed information to us over the following months.

Overshadowing the agency threat were lots of other changes to the way early years would be managed in the future in the ‘More Great Childcare’ plan including changes to ratios for all early years providers, new places created to accommodate children who would be coming into childcare for the first time as part of the 2 year funding offer, changes to training requirements and much more.
The Government told us they were consulting on their plans... and indeed a number of consultations appeared on various websites, mostly with very short response times and featuring closed, complicated and at times somewhat bizarre questions.

The issue that united the entire early years sector was changes to ratios so the Childminding Forum decided to raise a petition against this part of the ‘More Great Childcare’ plan. To date over 34,000 signatories have signed to give a very strong message to Government that we do not want ratios to change and outcomes for children to be damaged as a consequence. The petition has been presented to Government and we are awaiting a response. Other petitions also boast thousands of signatures against changes to ratios and there are many different campaign groups from all corners of the early years workforce lobbying the Government against their plan.

Meanwhile, hundreds of members of the Childminding Forum and Facebook groups wrote a response to the ‘More Great Childcare’ plan and sent it to Ms Truss and other Government ministers. It was a comprehensive analysis of the plan and asked lots of questions about how agencies and ratios changes would work in practice - and how ‘More Great Childcare’ would raise outcomes for children - and how it would lower costs for parents - and much more.
Ms Truss’ office responded, thanking us for our time and advising us to read ‘More Great Childcare’ for more information about the changes to come.

The national press, early years and childcare magazines, Twitter, Facebook and everywhere you looked was full of reports against ‘More Great Childcare’. Other agencies waded into the debate such as Unison and the NUT, professionals such as early education experts from the Universities of Oxford and London and Government education advisors such as Cathy Nutbrown.

At the same time, while all of this lobbying and campaigning against ratio changes has been plodding on, the Government has been pushing ahead with its agency model for childminders. Before the ‘consultation’ (and I use the word loosely as consultation seems to equal fait accompli) is even completed agencies such as @homechildcare are being set up and trialled ready for September 2013.
We are told again and again by Ms Truss that agencies will not be compulsory and yet our concerns about our future sustainability as independent childminders are not being addressed.

We turned to Labour to ask for their support. They told us that they agreed there were grave concerns about the ‘More Great Childcare’ plan and ministers such as Sharon Hodgson, an ex-childminder with a lot of understanding of the early years sector, have given interviews and held meetings in an attempt to stop what is considered by many to be the worst aspect of the plan - ratios changes.
Our concern, however, is that the agency issue is still being sidelined - and Labour do not appear to have an alternative plan or suggestions for what might be introduced instead.

We turned to the Liberal Democrats to ask for their support. Nick Clegg raised concerns about the ratios issue in the media and we all cheered! Finally, we thought, someone close to Government was on our side - someone who could stop this dreadful ‘More Great Childcare’ plan before outcomes for the next generation of our precious children are damaged. We stopped cheering when Duncan Hames, Lib Dem MP for Chippenham, announced on Newsnight that the Liberal Democrats support childminder agencies.

So... there’s a little history lesson for you.

The question on the lips of many thousands of dedicated, well qualified Ofsted registered childminders today is... where do we go next? We are told that we don’t have to join agencies - no amount of speculation will tell us what is really going to happen in each of the 150+ Local Authorities throughout the country - nobody can tell you what is going to happen in your area - nobody knows who the agencies are because it’s all very hush-hush - and childminder morale is at rock bottom as the uncertainty continues.

In my opinion each one of us needs to make a decision!

We need to decide NOW that we are going to boycott the agencies and support ourselves through the challenging times ahead. We need to be responsible for our own businesses - our CPD, our paperwork, our sustainability and ultimately our own success. We do not need agencies to help us continue doing the amazing jobs we are already doing!
As long as we keep calm and don’t feel the need to ‘join’ things in a panic I truly believe we will be fine!

There is a NEW free website to support childminders who want to stay independent of agency control.

There is a NEW section of the Childminding Forum dedicated to listening to childminder’s concerns about independence now and in the future - where established, highly qualified childminders will quickly respond to your questions - Childminding Forum independent childminders.

For those of you who prefer Facebook as your communication medium, there is a NEW independent childminders group which is gathering new members every day. The Facebook group and the website both link very closely to the Childminding Forum, each supporting the other.

And there will be more to come! You need to tell us what you want and we will support you!

In my next blog I will look at how childminders can remain independent... how to remain sustainable... how to prepare yourself now so you are in a strong position to maintain a successful childminding business in the future.

Sarah x

References
Ofsted warn of changes ahead for childminder regulations - http://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/news/bulletin/NurseryWorldUpdate/article/1120315/?DCMP=EMC-CONNurseryWorldUpdate
Affordable Quality - http://www.centreforum.org/assets/pubs/affordable-quality.pdf
Childminders in the Netherlands (DayCare Trust) -
http://www.daycaretrust.org.uk/data/files/Childminders_in_the_Netherlands.pdf
More Great Childcare - https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/170552/More_20Great_20Childcare_20v2.pdf.pdf
Childminding Forum response to ‘More Great Childcare’ plan -
http://www.childmindinghelp.co.uk/Resources/mgc.pdf
Childminding Forum petition against ratios changes -
www.keepratiosdown.co.uk
Children and Families Bill - Written evidence -http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmpublic/childrenandfamilies/memo/pbc131consolidated.pdf
Unison response to ‘More Great Childcare’ -
http://www.unison.org.uk/asppresspack/pressrelease_view.asp?id=2947
NUT response to aspects of the ‘More Great Childcare’ plan -
http://www.teachers.org.uk/node/18211
Research evidence from academics at the Universities of Oxford and London -
https://www.dropbox.com/s/87nfddq4089hi2o/More%20Great%20Childcare%20Research%20Evidence%20March%202013.pdf
Cathy Nutbrown response ‘Shaking the Foundations of Quality’ -
http://www.scribd.com/doc/131109473/Shaking-the-Foundations-of-Quality-Nutbrown-18th-March-2013
Agencies are being set up - one we know about is @homechildcare - http://www.athomechildcaretraining.com/news/18/Agency-Model-Will-Fill-the-Gap-in-Support-for-Childminders.html
Childminding Forum supports independent childminders with a new website -
http://independentchildminders.co.uk/
And a new section on the Childminding Forum -
http://www.childmindinghelp.co.uk/forum/independent-childminding-chat/