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[UK] Childminding in England today: focusing on quality assurance system of childcare services

Summary:
During the Labour government of 1997-2010, family day care (a home-based childcare service), commonly known as childminding, was strongly promoted as one of the key elements to enhance childcare services which had been unable to meet the increasing demand of families in England. In this report, I will explain the actual conditions of childminding in the country as well as the government’s efforts towards the quality assurance of childminding. At the same time, I will discuss the difference in requirements for family day carers between England and Japan.

Keywords:

Ofsted, England, childminders, quality of childcare, childcare policies, the Labour government, childminding (home-based childcare), quality assurance
Japanese

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Introduction

In Japan today, long waiting lists for places in childcare facilities are increasingly becoming an urgent issue. People are starting to seriously consider family day care as one measure to resolve such a problem. Family day care is regulated by the revised Child Welfare Act (2008) and has been specified as a "small-scale childcare service" in the "Overview of the Basic Plan Draft for the New System of Children and Child-rearing" (June 2010) proposed by the Cabinet Office, Government of Japan.

When the above proposal is officially approved and the new system launched, family day care will be widely offered by the registered childcare providers to meet the demand for childcare, mainly for children under three. The new system is designed to offer a "childcare infrastructure with various types of childcare providers"; therefore, in the process of implementing and developing the system, different qualification requirements could be established for the workforce in each type of childcare provision. Under such circumstances, how will the government provide quality assurance of family day care? In their proposal, this was not mentioned in detail.

To deal with this issue, we may be able to learn from the example of England. The most recent Labour government (1997-2010) actively promoted the childminding, as one of the key elements to enhance childcare services in the nation, while respecting parents' right of choice. At the same time, the government established schemes for the quality assurance of individual childminders.

Comparison of family day care system in England and Japan

In England, family day care is officially called childminding, and a person who is engaged in the business is called a childminder. Unlike Japan, there is no municipal subcontracting or public funding for childminding, other than a few exceptions. Likewise, the former British governments before the most recent Labour government had not granted public funding to children attending centre-based childcare services, except those in a critical situation. Therefore, after the mid-1970s when women increasingly advanced into the workforce, parents faced a serious shortage of affordable childcare services. They had to find a childcare facility or a childminder for their children by themselves and bear all of the expense. These childcare services were very expensive, yet failed to provide "safety and security" to the children due to the considerable variation in quality of childcare providers.

Childminding is a privately run childcare service based on a mutual agreement between a childminder and parents over service conditions such as working hours and fees (on an hourly basis with/without meals and snacks), and a drop off and pick up service from local preschools and other private enrichment lessons. Because of its flexible services, childminding has long been a convenient and widely used childcare option for busy parents in England.

A childminder registration system was established by the year of 1948, nevertheless there were often child victims of improper practices and accidents as the system did not function well to regulate and supervise childminders. It was the Children Act 1989 that changed such situations. The new legislation had a direct influence on strengthening the regulatory power of local authorities so that they could effectively instruct and supervise the practice of childminders; however, the impact of such legislation varied depending on the efforts of each local authority.

Childminders in England today are regulated as registered self-employed childcare providers who look after children in their own home for remuneration for a total of more than two hours in any day. According to statistical data in 2007 [1] (which may be a little obsolete), there were about 70,000 childminders looking after 300,000 children (limited to registered capacity). The former Labour government has sought to spread stricter childminder regulation, stating that using unregistered childminders is illegal, even in the case of childminding between close friends if payment is made.

On registering as a childminder [2], an applicant must pay a registration fee and then an annual fee to the government. Both fees cost 35 pounds (as of 2010), which is equivalent to about 5,000 Japanese yen. There was and is no requirement for a childminder to have any specified childcare qualifications. The application process is not simple, but most applications are accepted as long as the applicant is healthy and suitable, all household members of the applicant including him/herself have no criminal record, and the premises to be used for childminding satisfy the registration requirements. Applicants are required to complete 12 hours of introductory training courses, and they can do so while working as a registered childminder.

The most noticeable disparity between England and Japan regarding the requirements to become a childminder is the regulation imposed on his/her own children. In Japan, any person who has children under compulsory school age (six years old) cannot apply for registration, whereas in England, prospective childminders with their children under compulsory school age (five years old) can apply, by simply including their children into the maximum number of children they are allowed to care for.

An interview survey conducted by the author between 2006 and 2008 revealed some of the opinions on childminding as to who would become childminders and why. This included the facts that childminders wanted to take care of their own children while children were little; they could not find any suitable childcare facility, especially in terms of affordability. Some childcare researchers and government administrators among the interviewees consider these reasons as the main driving force for people becoming childminders; in fact, there were several who mentioned that they had been childminding while bringing up their children.

The maximum number of children a single childminder can care for at one time is also different between the two countries. In Japan, the maximum number is three children (under three years of age in principle); whereas in England, a childminder can care for six children under eight years of age; of these six children, no more than three may be young children under five years and no more than one child can be under the age of one. The childminder can also cater for children over eight years without limitation unless there is a valid reason to suspect that this would hinder proper childcare. This difference tells us that a childminder in England is recognized as a childcare provider not only for toddlers and preschoolers but also for school-aged children.

Actual conditions of childminding in England

The author has interviewed more than twenty childminders in England and heard about their views and actual conditions on childminding, which were very different from those in Japan.

Childminder X has two children, a five-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son, providing childcare for twelve children of other families. Since each family selects different time slots and frequency for childcare she creates a schedule of all children and constantly checks whether the total number of children in her premises at one time meets the approved number. During the long school holidays, there will be several children over eight years old in her house, in addition to six children under eight. Thinking about her daughter, she also schedules a date on which she accepts fewer children than the approved number so that her daughter can invite friends to her home.

Childminder Y, who has a child with special needs says that she always aims to offer good childcare which she wished for her child but in vain. She prepares and eats meals with the minded children, as their parents wish, and takes them to parks and shopping malls nearby almost every day as well as to enrichment activities such as swimming lessons.

Childminders Z, a married couple, who have two children, a five-year-old and a two-year-old, offer childcare to four one-year- old children from 7:30am to 6:00pm. The couple says that they try to treat these children as their own; they look after children even when some child gets ill (except serious cases) until the prescribed time, and if children's clothes get dirty, they wash the clothes in their washing machine.

Among the childminders interviewed, fees range from anywhere between 3.5 pounds and 8 pounds per hour.

Government's efforts towards quality assurance of childminding

Now we look into the former Labour government's efforts towards the quality assurance of childminding. In 1998, the National Childcare Strategy was launched to promote comprehensive measures to expand and support childcare services. In the same year, a scheme for accrediting childminders was introduced. Under this scheme, an accredited childminder who meets certain requirements is treated as an early education provider; that is, she/he is given the equality of treatment alongside other centre-based childcare providers and becomes eligible to receive Nursery Education Grant Funding. Furthermore, as a part of a quality assurance scheme established in collaboration with the National Childminding Association (NCMA), the government asked local authorities to set up 'childminding networks' and provided financial support to childminders through local authorities in order to ensure a stable supply of childminding. The government also required that the local authorities should assess the demands for childcare and ensure sufficient services to meet such demands.

In 2000, the "National Standards for Under Eights Day Care and Childminding" was established and childminders were to be regulated by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), the official body for inspecting schools. Since then, Ofsted takes full responsibility for the registration process, the inspections, and cancelling registration of the childminders judged inadequate. Ofsted inspection is conducted at least every three years under the same criteria that apply to schools and centre-based childcare providers. All this must have boosted their self-esteem significantly. The inspection reports relating to childminders are published on the Ofsted website anonymously by the use of a unique reference number given to each of them, while the reports on schools and other childcare providers are displayed in full detail.

At the same time, each local authority was required to set up "Children's Information Service" (currently "Family Information Service") to provide a range of information on childcare services offered in the region. Through this service, parents who are looking for a childminder can obtain a list of registered childminders who have vacancies as well as their inspection reports, which will help parents in choosing a childminder. This system gives parents increased confidence in childminding along with a feeling that their child will be safe and well cared for. Full color brochures and booklets on the provision of childcare services are also produced and widely distributed by every local authority, and piled high on the desk in the public facilities where young parents may drop in. All this must be very expensive but it shows the government's determination that it is necessary to disclose and publicize the thorough information at any cost, in order to ensure the parental right and responsibility in making a choice.

Meanwhile, another supportive measure was taken to assist childminders to reduce any social isolation that might exist. Since 2004, the government has been actively working to set up a "Children's Center" in each community, which provides a range of childcare services including childminders' drop-in. Childminders can bring the minded children to the facility where experienced staff offer a variety of support such as demonstrating play models, consulting on their business, and lending out toys and equipment. As a matter of course, this provides childminders with good opportunities to meet other childminders and make new friends.

The government has also strived to improve the social status of childminders. They have introduced "Early Years Professional Status", a new childcare qualification which is considered to be on par with "Qualified Teacher Status", the award required for teaching in schools. They also started funding childminders who wish to study for and gain the status [3]. In this way, childminders are given a career path, starting from being without qualification to obtaining the highest level of childcare qualification through in-service training.

Conclusion

It can be seen that the former Labour government made remarkable efforts to improve the quality of childminding by setting up various quality assurance schemes. However, such measures significantly increased the financial burden on the government: the cost of Ofsted inspections to assess more than 20,000 childminders per year alone is already enormous, the labor cost of Ofsted and the publication cost of inspection reports and other information. The case of childminding in England tells us that childcare services delivered by various providers do not come cheap if the related costs for quality assurance are fully calculated.

[1] British Market Research Bureau (2007): Childcare and Early Years Providers Survey 2007, Research Report No.DCSF-RR047.
[2] Ofsted (2010): Guide to Registration on the Childcare Register.
[3] CWDC (2008): Introduction and information guide: Early Years Professional Status.

Reference:
Mikiko Tabu, "Childminding in England Today (4): The labour government early years policy examined through the lens of its restructuring early years qualifications" In the Bulletin of Seitoku University, vol. 21, 2010

*The original paper was written in Japanese and published on CRN Japanese site on June 30, 2011.
Profile

Mikiko Tabu
Professor Tabu's main research interest lies in the area of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC). She wrote a thesis on Montessori, then she conducted literature-based research on the women pioneers who contributed to the development of ECEC, such as the McMillan sisters and Susan Isaacs. She was given an opportunity to visit the USA to learn about the ECEC system and practice and thereafter, she is interested in the differences of ECEC professionals in Japan and the USA. Currently she also works on a research study based on video conferences and interviews.
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