The availability of childcare is essential, now more than ever, given that countries with higher female employment tend to have higher economic growth. So the government was right to announce in the Autumn Statement that they would extend the free entitlement—15 hours’ free childcare—to the most deprived 40 per cent of 2 year olds. But the majority of childminders have been unable to deliver the free entitlement to date.
We often hear about the astronomical cost of childcare. But the inflexibility of childcare provision is also a problem for some parents. Picking children up from nursery at the right time can be very difficult to fit around work commitments. Overtime, night shifts and weekend work are much more common here compared to the rest of Europe—but the overwhelming majority of nurseries are not open at these times.
Childminders—home-based carers—can help. They tend to work longer hours during the week: 44 hours compared to 33 hours for nursery workers. And they’re often more conveniently located than any other childcare setting, within “pram-pushing” distance.
But childminders are increasingly scarce now: the workforce has shrunk by 40% since the 1990s, largely because parents started to choose day-care centres over childminders at that time.
Childminders are fighting against an untrue perception that they are less quality and safe than nurseries. Working to the same curriculum as nurseries through the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS)—which was introduced in 2008—helps counter this misconception. Indeed, the decline in childminders has stalled, even recently risen, since the implementation of the EYFS.
But the long-term decrease in childminders has been exacerbated by the absurd regulations around the delivery of the free entitlement. To receive the government money to deliver these free hours, childminders don’t just have to have at least a good OFSTED inspection, but they also have to be part of an approved childminding network. These networks are funded by local authorities.
Fewer than half of local authorities currently provide these networks, so childminders in many areas are not able to provide parents with free hours. In fact, only 17 per cent of childminders nationwide provide the free entitlement. This situation is likely to worsen in the future as local authorities see their budgets squeezed.
Day-care centres, on the other hand, only have to have at least a good OFSTED inspection to deliver the free entitlement. So a greater proportion of centres than childminders are delivering free hours. Little wonder many parents are choosing the day-care centres: a significant number of hours of childcare are free.
Fortunately, the government has now dropped the national requirement for childminders to be part of a network to deliver the free entitlement. Instead, local authorities will be able to choose whether they wish to maintain this rule. Yes, childminder networks can help deliver training opportunities and drive-up quality. But for the sake of creating greater choice and flexibility in the market, local authorities should level the playing field and allow childminders to deliver the free entitlement even if they aren’t members of an approved network.