Those OECD countries with higher female employment tend to have higher economic growth. The availability of childcare, now more than ever, is therefore essential. The Government was right in the Autumn Statement to extend the free entitlement – 15 hours’ free childcare – to the 40 per cent most deprived 2 year olds. But the majority of childminders have been unable to deliver the free entitlement to date. That needs to change if parents are to be able to take advantage of the new offer.
We often hear about the astronomical cost of childcare. This makes work pointless for too many parents. The SMF’s recent paper The Parent Trap shows that the affordability of childcare is set to worsen in the future: low-income families are set to pay 62 per cent more from their own pockets in 2015 compared to 2006.
But the inflexibility of childcare provision is also a real problem. Picking up children from nursery at the right time is often unachievable with work commitments, despite the wider availability of flexible working. And today, 87 per cent of parents work hours outside Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm: overtime, night shifts and weekend work is much more common here compared to the rest of Europe. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of nurseries just don’t open at these times.
Childminders – home-based carers working at flexible times – can help. They work, on average, longer hours during the week: 44 compared to 33 for nursery workers. And often they’re more conveniently located than any other childcare setting, within “pram-pushing” distance.
But there has been a rapid decline of childminders – with over 40 per cent of the workforce leaving the profession since the 1990s. The Conservatives admirably fought the last election aspiring to reverse this trend.
Some in Downing Street think the solution is to cut the regulations in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum, introduced in 2008.This misunderstands the problem. When I worked for the Conservatives, some childminders wrote in complaining about the red tape they faced with the new curriculum. The new slimmed-down version of the EYFS, as recommended in the government-commissioned Tickell Review, will surely help.
But those who shout the loudest often don’t represent the majority views. The National Childminding Association (NCMA) is very supportive of the EYFS. And in visits I have made to childminders, they say the curriculum is helpful in supporting their work.
You see, as research by Daycare Trust shows, childminders are fighting against an untrue perception that they are less quality and safe than nurseries. Working to the same curriculum as nurseries helps counter this misconception. Indeed, the decline in childminders has stalled, even recently risen, since this new layer of red tape.
The real reason for the tens of thousands of childminders leaving the profession is that parental demand has massively shifted away from them in favour of daycare centres. As childminder numbers have plummeted over the last decade, day centres numbers have rocketed.
This trend has been exacerbated by the absurd regulations around the delivery of the early years free entitlement, the 15 free hours all parents of 3 and 4 year olds – and now 40 per cent of 2 year olds – are entitled to at any childcare setting of their choice. To receive the government money to deliver these free hours, childminders don’t just have to have at least a good OFSTED inspection, they have to be part of an approved childminding network. These networks – often provided by the NCMA – are funded by local authorities.
Fewer than half of local authorities currently provide these networks, so childminders in many areas of the country 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 have their budgets squeezed.
Daycare centres just have to have at least a good OFSTED inspection to deliver the free entitlement. So a greater proportion than childminders are delivering free hours. Little wonder many parents are choosing the day care centres: a significant number of hours of the childcare place they are paying for are free.
Fortunately, the Department for Education has listened to the Social Market Foundation, and has dropped the national requirement for childminders to be part of a network to deliver the free entitlement. It will now be up to local authorities if they maintain this unfair rule. Yes, childminder networks 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 early years free entitlement even if they aren’t a member of an approved network.