Childminders

– in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 6th July 2012.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch 2:31 pm, 6th July 2012

It is with pleasure that I speak for thousands of parents and young children who benefit from the work of childminders up and down the country. I must first declare an interest: my husband is a non-executive director of an organisation that carries out Ofsted inspections for under-fives providers, including childminders.

There has been a great deal of activity over the last decade or so to improve the quality of child care provision. Childminders have been enthusiastic in embracing that change, and childminding has become far more professional overall. It is mostly women who are childminders, and they have revelled in the fact that they have increased their skills and been recognised as more professional for doing so. I recently met 40 childminders in Hackney who were enthusiastic about the work they do. They stressed that the changes made over the last 10 to 15 years have weeded out bad childminders. They are proud of the progress made in the sector.

Jayne Nulty, who was accredited as one of the best childminders in Hackney a couple of years ago, has talked of her concerns about some of the things that I want to raise, but she also talks about

“the bad old days when the childcarer put kids in front of the television all day and little check was made on the situation.”

She believes that the professionalism of the sector has stopped those sorts of people working in it. A parent has said:

“As a single, working parent I have had a great need of childminders; three in all through my son’s younger years. I have a huge respect for them—it’s an incredibly important job; to care for, socialise and teach young children.”

I am sure that the Minister would agree.

I will not go into great detail about the history of improvements in child care—I am sure the Minister needs no telling: she is master of her brief—but the last Labour Government did a great deal to ensure that child care in all settings was improved, including by introducing a regulation and inspection regime for childminders that is run by Ofsted. This Government have also taken quite an interest in child care, and recently received the review of education and child care qualifications by Professor Cathy Nutbrown. Among her recommendations is that childminders should have a full and relevant qualification up to level 3 by 2022. Her aim is for all under-fives to receive the same quality of child care and education whichever provider parents choose to use. I have no disagreement with the desire to improve and enhance further the professional role of childminders as essential early educators.

A recent study by the National Audit Office looked at the impact of better qualified carers for under-fives on the skills of children attending primary school. Although it is early days—these longitudinal studies need to take their course—there is clear evidence that a highly qualified early years educator can improve the education that children receive and, crucially, help other, less well qualified carers in the same setting to deliver better educational results too. The Government have already changed the early years foundation stage to reduce what they considered to be the regulatory burden. However, it is interesting that we are seeing yet another review of child care. It is important that we understand the scope. Too much change too quickly creates its own burdens and, given the Government’s desire to reduce regulatory burdens, I hope that they are considering thoroughly the impact of any changes that may be coming down the line. In a letter to me of 19 June, the Secretary of State for Education did not give any detail about the scope of this latest review, so I wonder whether the Minister could provide any more information. When will she report to the Prime Minister? Will she take submissions from organisations and individuals? What is the time scale for any changes the Government might introduce?

This debate has been prompted by concerns about the focus of the Government’s review of the affordability and availability of child care, particularly as it relates to childminders. This concern stems in part from fears that the review could pick up on ideas espoused by Elizabeth Trussin a recent pamphlet. On the first day of the Budget debate, I was standing in almost exactly this place when she raised concerns about the cost of child care. On this, I can only agree that this is a real issue for parents up and down the country, particularly in London.

Let us look at some of the figures. These are supplied by the Library but came from the Daycare Trust, based on a survey it conducted this year. It found that 25 hours of childminding care for a child under two costs, as the British average, £92, but nearly £130 in London. The differential is quite stark, and that is just one example. As a mother of three children, I am well aware of the costs, particularly given the long hours of work in this place. This is a cost that parents have to live with; it is a real issue. It is right for any Government to look at the affordability of child care, especially in difficult economic times.

I am concerned about a number of points. First, changes to regulation could impact negatively on cost. At the moment, families can receive tax credits or, if they are higher earners, tax vouchers to help towards the costs of regulated child care. If we remove regulation, it is far from clear how a publicly funded subsidy for child care could be justified. I seek some reassurance from the Minister that she will be mindful of these issues; it is not just at the margins, as this can make a big difference to mainstream family incomes.

In the Netherlands, which the hon. Member for South West Norfolk looked at closely for her pamphlet, there was evidence that when changes were introduced, family members benefited from the public subsidy. The costs to the Dutch Government increased, but the number of places did not and there was a decrease in quality. In seeking to address the issue of affordability, we should never seek to water down quality. I hope that the Minister will agree emphatically with me on that point. Any parent who places their child’s care in the hands of a professional stranger should be able to reassure themselves that that professional is safe, competent and will make a positive input into the child’s education.

Two of the key proposals in the paper produced by the hon. Member for South West Norfolk are to increase the ratio of childminders to children and to introduce an agency as the local regulator and inspector of child care. She also highlights the fact that since Ofsted inspections were introduced, the UK has seen a drop in the number of registered childminders. This is a myth that needs to be nailed early on. Before Ofsted, the local council provided a list of childminders, but there was no way of knowing what quality of care was provided. The numbers went down because those not willing to meet the new quality standards drifted away. I mentioned Jayne Nulty, who had talked about children simply being put in front of a television; we do not want to go back to that sort of thing. I would not be happy about allowing someone who does not provide the right quality of care to look after my child. I represent a constituency with many young parents, and I know that they share my concerns about that.

The number of childminders in Hackney has hovered around the 200 mark since 2009, but there has been an increase in child care places. In 2009, 219 childminders provided 839 places; there are currently 198 registered childminders—a small drop—but they provide 837 places. The ratios go up and down, depending on the age of the children being dealt with; the figures can fluctuate a great deal.

Photo of Jane Ellison Jane Ellison Conservative, Battersea

My constituents also include many young parents, so I agree that this is a hot issue. Is the hon. Lady going to address the central thrust of the pamphlet produced by my hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss, which was about the much lower cost of child care generally in comparable European countries that have good, safe and well-regulated child care systems? I was wondering whether the hon. Lady was going to come on to that.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

I will respond to that. In the Netherlands, the Government fund about a third of child care costs. That is not comparable to what is in place under this Government. We have tax credits, so the benefits usually come through the tax system. I recognise that the Government are providing 15 years of free care for three and four-year-olds and want to extend free care places to two-year-olds—following the trajectory of the last Government—and those are welcome steps, but there is a cost to the taxpayer, and there is a need for balance. I realise that that is not easy, but I think we should see child care as an investment in working women in particular but working parents in general, helping them to maintain their place in the working world and serve as role models for their children as they continue to work.

People need more choice. Many parents in my constituency give up work or reduce their hours because paying for child care is not an option. I hope that, if the Minister refers to the scope of the Government’s review, she will give us some indication of the extent to which they will consider the issue of affordability and the available options, particularly given the current climate.

Between March 2011 and March 2012, the number of registered child nationally actually rose. It is interesting that that should happen even in difficult economic times, but it is probably because a number of people, mostly women, are looking for work and want child care that will give them some flexibility. It is also the case that the numbers fluctuate because people go in and out of the profession.

Childminders are currently regulated and inspected by Ofsted. They pay a small fee and are inspected regularly. That is important for two reasons. As well as guaranteeing a quality of care, it allows parents to use child care vouchers to pay for childminding and to receive tax credits. The salary sacrifice schemes and tax incentives that are offered by many employers and supported by the Government are invaluable to parents. They also serve as a key driver, encouraging parents to seek out the best quality care, because they do not have the option of going for something cheap and cheerful but not very good if they have to seek out regulated child care. I hope that the Government will be mindful of that in making any future plans, because the link between public subsidy and quality is important to parents and to ensuring that we educate our next generation appropriately.

As a working parent myself, I am aware at first hand of the challenges of securing good quality child care. I do not want to return to the old days when, although the council had a list of local childminders, it was just a list of names which did not tell a parent anything about quality. Now, some years on, I am again the parent of a toddler, and can make a better comparison between examples of nursery, school nursery and childminding provision on a like-for-like basis. It is important to give people information about quality-based choice.

A recent survey by the National Childminding Association revealed that 86% of childminders believe that being regulated by Ofsted helps them to reassure parents that they are professionals delivering a good quality rather than a second-rate service, and 80% feel that proposals to move to an agency model of inspection, removing Ofsted's role of individual inspection, would have a detrimental effect on their professionalism.

Concern about increasing ratios has been expressed by both childminders and parents. Dealing with five under-fives, as proposed by the hon. Member for South West Norfolk, would be very challenging. Just getting five children to the park at that age is a challenge. Parents seeking quality care tell me that they choose childminders partly because of the generally lower ratios that they offer.

I have raised the issues covered in the pamphlet not because they are Government policy, but because they have been greeted with real concern by childminders and parents who fear that this may be the Government’s direction of travel. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. It is understandable that, given the Government’s announcement of a review at the same time as the publication of the pamphlet, people will tend to link the two. I hope that the Minister can shed some light on how much influence the views of the hon. Member for South West Norfolk will have on the Government’s review.

According to the results of the NCMA survey, people who had been childminders for some time felt that their professional status had increased since they started; 42.5% said that that was mainly because they now had to deliver the early years foundation stage, while 39.5% said that it was because they were registered and inspected by Ofsted. They are proud of their professionalism, and that contributes greatly to the quality of child care. I think that the House should recognise what has been achieved.

The survey’s findings underline concern about any model that would water down that clear national standard. The idea that agencies would be allowed to carry out inspection and training locally fills me with dread. I do not say that lightly; I say it with feeling, because of my experience of care at the other end of the age scale. Anyone who has had to work with agencies that provide care for older people in a domiciliary setting will see the impact of this. Those agencies—just like those proposed in places such as the Netherlands—were supposed to ensure quality and carry out inspections, but in domiciliary settings meaningful inspection is rarely carried out. Carers are paid a lot less than the fees paid to the agency by the client, so a tidy percentage in profit is creamed off along the way. I am not entirely sure who would benefit from the proposed move. We would not necessarily see a decrease in child care costs—in fact, an increase would be likely—and childminders would have to pay a fee for the benefit of registering with an agency.

Childminders value the direct relationship they have with parents. They are also concerned that they would see a cut in their fees. Childminders typically make less than £10,000 a year. They can charge what they choose, but the sum is around £4 an hour per child. Even when looking after four or more children, that does not provide a large income when costs such as food, nappies and tax are deducted. There can only be two outcomes: fees go up for parents, who already struggle with the costs, or childminders’ income reduces.

The Dutch model espoused by the hon. Member for South West Norfolk has aroused much concern. Are the Government considering the Dutch model of regulating childminders, and in particular increased ratios and the use of agencies as intermediaries between parents and childminders? Will the Government be looking at the role of Ofsted in relation to childminders?

I represent a borough where about one in five residents are under the age of 16, so these issues are pertinent to more than one fifth of my constituents. That, coupled with the excellent progress made by local childminders and our 12 Sure Start children’s centres, makes Hackney an ideal place for the Minister to carry out a field visit. The Hackney childminding network would be pleased to learn more from her about Government thinking, and to contribute constructively to continuing improvement in the quality of child care and education for under fives and school-age children. I hope the Minister will visit Hackney South and Shoreditch, and I offer her as much support as I can give in ensuring we continue to improve child care, while also working hard to address the challenging affordability issues that working parents face.

Photo of Sarah Teather Sarah Teather The Minister of State, Department for Education 2:47 pm, 6th July 2012

I congratulate Meg Hillier on securing this debate, and I appreciate the opportunity to put on record the Government’s admiration for the work done by childminders and their enormous professionalism and contribution to the early years sector.

As I was listening to the hon. Lady’s speech, in my mind I was transported back to a similarly deserted Chamber on a Friday afternoon about four years ago. I do not know whether she remembers, but I was sitting on the Opposition Benches then, and she was on the Government side. She treated me with considerably more grace than I returned on that occasion. I hope that now, from the Treasury Bench, I treat her with as much respect as she always gave me in the past.

As the hon. Lady said, there is a lot of media interest in childminders at present. The National Childminding Association—the NCMA—has been running its own campaign, partly because some of that media interest has created anxiety among childminders about the future direction of Government policy. First, we must be clear about the vital role childminders play as part of the early years work force, in both early education and the child care they provide. The NCMA and many other bodies have done important work to professionalise the reputation and the practice of childminders. We fund the NCMA to carry out some of that work, and we are working closely with it on many issues.

The Government believe it is vital to maintain choice for parents in the early years. We have a very diverse early years sector, ranging from maintained nurseries through to voluntary and private sector nurseries, as well as childminders and a host of drop-in and parent and toddler groups. All of them have their role to play, both in terms of child development and in providing care and support to parents and enabling parents to get back to work and sustain a better work-life balance.

There are lots of reasons why a parent might choose a childminder over a nursery setting, including flexibility, location, security of the home-based setting and the reputation of a particular childminder. Whatever option parents choose for their child, it is critical that the Government do their bit to ensure that the setting offers the high-quality experience necessary for child development and that it is available at a convenient time for both the parent and the child at a price they can afford to pay. Indeed, those guiding factors are behind all our work on early years: quality, because the evidence shows that quality makes a difference to child development; and availability and cost, because they are what really matter to parents. All factors are very important for parents when they choose where to place their child.

The Government fund the early years foundation provision because we know that it has many benefits for society. First, improved child development offers education opportunities later but also benefits mothers, in particular, as well as fathers as regards their ability to participate in the work force with its benefits to wider society. Usually, those benefits are complementary, but sometimes they are held in tension. When they are, the Government have decided that the priority will always be child development. It is worth saying that, because it deals with some of the anxieties people have about how we might make a decision and what we would prioritise.

As the hon. Lady mentioned, we asked Professor Cathy Nutbrown to report to us on quality to inform our long-term strategy focused on qualifications and training over the next 10 to 15 years. I asked her to consider that, not only because of the evidence on quality but because we know that there is a particular issue with the esteem in which early years professionals are held in wider society and their reputation across the piece, whether they are working in nurseries or are childminders. She has made a lot of good recommendations and we want to take some time to consider them. We will respond to her report later in the year. I want to make it clear that Professor Nutbrown’s recommendations are for those who work in early years settings across the piece and do not just focus on childminders as our work on early years is more widely focused.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the reform of the early years foundation stage curriculum, which comes into force this year. We have tried to focus on improving quality, so that it focuses on the core areas of child development that we know are foundation building blocks for all that happens later in schools. Settings that offer the free entitlement all offer the early years foundation stage curriculum, including childminders.

On the questions of availability, access and cost we are doing a great deal to try to improve access. First, as the hon. Lady mentioned, we are increasing the number of hours available to parents through the free entitlement from 12.5 hours a week to 15 hours a week and extending that to two-year-olds, beginning with the poorest 20%, who will have a free entitlement from 2013, and working up to 40% by 2014. Yesterday, I published a consultation on the criteria that we are suggesting that we might use to prioritise those children.

We want to do a great deal more. We know that families are under extreme pressure at the moment because of the cost of living, and that is why the Government made the changes we did to the tax system to ensure that those earning the least were taken out of paying tax. We know that child care is a particular pressure on many families, including in London, as the hon. Lady suggested. That is why the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have asked me and the Minister responsible for disabled people, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Maria Miller, to work together on a review of the availability and cost of child care.

The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch asked me a number of questions about the terms of reference and detail of that review. We will shortly publish the terms of reference, so unfortunately I cannot answer all her questions today. When we publish the terms of reference, we will make it clear how people can submit their views to that review and how we will consider them. As the announcement made clear, we are looking at a number of aspects in particular—first, out of school wrap-around care.

We know that many parents have difficulty accessing child care which is appropriate and available to them at the times and places that they need it. For parents with a number of children of different ages, that can create real pressure. That is one area where a good deal more progress could be made, so that is one of the first areas that we want to look at. What can we learn from some of the best schools that have taken an innovative approach to wrap-around care? The Free school in Norwich, for example, a new school, has on-site affordable child care six days a week, 51 weeks of the year, which makes a substantial contribution to parents’ support network. Mossbourne academy provides a longer school day—again, a great support for many parents who have to juggle a working day and perhaps pick children up from child care in different places.

It is important that we identify regulation that creates unnecessary burdens which detract from quality. Unfortunately, regulation does not always support quality. Sometimes regulation that was initially intended to raise quality becomes burdensome over time, possibly because it is gold-plated or misunderstood, or because things move on and professionals gain enough knowledge to be able to exercise their own judgment. That was our focus when we looked at the early years foundation stage. Therefore, for example, we pulled away some of the health and safety regulation that was a distraction for many in the sector. They had to do risk assessments that were out of all proportion to the task in hand when they were taking a child to a park.

Similarly, the old structure had 69 goals and was extremely prescriptive. We focused it much more on three core building blocks, which we hope will focus professionals’ minds on quality, be less distracting for them, and encourage them to use their professional judgment more. As the hon. Lady said, great progress has been made in the knowledge of early years professionals across the piece, not just childminders. We felt that now was the right time to do that. We will take a similar approach when we look at other regulation for childminders and others in early years settings.

On ratios, Cathy Nutbrown’s report made it clear that sometimes we can offset different ratios against the quality of the staff in a setting. The hon. Lady asked whether we would be looking at international examples. That is one of the first areas where we have much to learn from other countries. Elizabeth Truss gave examples from the Netherlands. There is a great deal that we can learn from the Netherlands, as well as from France and the

Scandinavian countries. Some countries have slightly different systems. Others have systems similar to our own.

The core aim is to focus on the three elements that I outlined at the beginning of my speech: quality, affordability and availability. If we do not bring all those three together, parents will feel that they are losing one of the legs of the stool that is vital for them to sit on if they are to be prepared to leave their child in an early years setting.

Quality is incredibly important to the Government. Our defining principle is to try to raise social mobility. If we were to take decisions that were at the expense of quality, that would undermine the core work that we are trying to do in other areas. However, parents are finding it extremely difficult to pay for child care, and where regulation is getting in the way it is right and proper to see what we can do to relieve the burden on the setting and to see whether that will have any long-term impact on costs for parents.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making available this opportunity to place my commitment to the area on the record, and to thank the NCMA for all the work that it does in raising quality for childminders and in making its views well known to Government. I am sure that it will make its views well known during the next few months as we think about how to extend affordability and availability of child care to parents.

I heard the hon. Lady’s invitation to visit Hackney, and I shall certainly bear that in mind as we think about how we might get more information about how any of these changes might affect practitioners on the ground.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.