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Comment: Childminding suffering from an expansion programme that doesn't recognise its value

Posted 26 November, 2021 by Jennifer Drummond

Implementation of the Scottish Government’s extension to funded childcare hours is failing childminding and threatens parental choice, writes Graeme McAlister (pictured), Chief Executive of the Scottish Childminding Association

In 2016 the Scottish Government published an ambitious blueprint to increase the entitlement to free Early Learning and Childcare (known as ‘funded ELC’) from 600 hours to 1140 hours for all three- and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds in Scotland from August 2020.

Since then, a huge amount of activity has been undertaken across the country at a national and local level to implement this important policy aimed at closing the attainment gap, increasing parental choice and providing more flexible childcare.

The intention is welcome, but the Scottish Childminding Association’s (SCMA) latest report, charting the progress of Scotland’s local authorities in including childminders in the delivery of funded ELC makes stark, challenging and uncomfortable reading.

We do not underestimate the scale and complexity of implementing the expansion of ELC; nor do we underestimate the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the disruption which this has caused. However, the reality for childminding is that many of the problems which childminding has faced with ELC expansion were deeply embedded before Covid-19 emerged and have not been adequately addressed.

While some progress has been made in increasing the numbers of childminders involved in delivering funded ELC, the numbers remain low. The founding principle of provider neutrality, or the ability for parents to choose to access their funded ELC from a range of childcare providers supported by the local authority who are authorising the funding is not working as it should.

There is clear evidence that childminding is not being promoted and offered equitably alongside local authority nursery provision as an option for parents to receive their entitlement of funded hours. Too many offers for funded ELC made by local authorities to parents are inflexible. Many childminders believe delivering funded hours is important to sustainability, but there is often a weak match between offers made by local authorities to parents and childminders’ business viability.

In addition, delivering funded hours, and the wider ELC expansion, has led to a significant increase in bureaucracy and paperwork for childminders, including through duplicative quality assurance systems at a national and local level. This is now the main reason childminders have left or plan to leave our workforce.

Encouragingly, the results of snapshot surveys of childminders and parents linked to the main audit would suggest that the majority of parents are receiving their first choice of childcare provider. However, this needs to be qualified with concern about the lack of choice and options available locally, with more than half of parents reporting they only received a single option for accessing their funded ELC within the offer from their local authority. As such, preferences could clearly differ if parents were presented with more options and the ability to make an informed choice.

In response to these findings of the audit, SCMA has made a number of detailed recommendations to Scottish Government including:

  • Provider Neutrality should be replaced; alternatively, the Scottish Government and local authority representative bodies need to step up and step in and ensure that Provider Neutrality is actually practised, and that local authorities promote and offer other forms of childcare including childminding, alongside local authority nursery provision, to parents as an option for accessing their funded ELC entitlement.
  • All funded ELC offers need to become more flexible and based on parental need.
  • Urgent, and immediate, action is required by Scottish Government to reduce the level of bureaucracy and paperwork for childminders associated with ELC expansion.
  • Scottish Government should undertake an urgent review of the wider scrutiny landscape BEFORE any additional scrutiny is added through Education Reform, the National Care Service and the Programme for Government’s commitments on one year-olds and school-aged childcare.
  • Scottish Government should provide financial support to extend the planned, demographically-targeted childminder recruitment campaign, initially in development for remote and rural areas;
  • Eligible-twos uptake must be urgently increased by implementing measures to increase the use of childminders for this priority group.

After five years of national and local implementation activity delivering funded ELC, the childminding workforce has declined by 26%, or 1457 childminders. This has accelerated in parallel to ELC expansion. This cannot be sustained and has significant implications for families, access to childcare and parental choice.

It could also threaten the Scottish Government’s ability to deliver on its commitments in the Programme for Government (click here to access) to extend ELC downwards to one-year-olds and to develop a new system of wraparound school-aged childcare – both areas in which childminders are heavily involved and will play a vital role.

A step change in action is now required – and urgently.

The SCMA published the Early Learning and Childcare Audit on Thursday 25 November.

Click here to view and download the report in full, via the SCMA website