A threat to child welfare, so why isn't the government listening?

If the Government replaces proper regulation of childminders with "affordable quality", our children will no longer be safe

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The Independent Online

To those not involved in early years sector Elizabeth Truss MP may not be a household name. Her appointment last week to Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for education and childcare may also have passed you by. But if you are a childminder alarm bells may have started ringing. If you are concerned about how young children are looked after, they should be ringing loud and clear for you too.

In May 2012 she penned a paper called ‘Affordable Quality’, in which she expressed her preference for what known as the “Netherlands model” of regulation for childminders. Essentially, rather than the government monitoring individual childminders through Ofsted as they do now, they would license a small number of childminding agencies.

The impact of this may not seem immediately obvious – but essentially it means an end to individual inspection of those caring for our youngest children, a set fee structure - which would mean a loss of flexibility for parents, and on a large scale, the loss of genuine, personally tailored care as childminders are swallowed up into large childcare franchises.

Back in May, when these proposals were just text in a think tank report, I was concerned enough to help set up a petition on Change.org urging the Government not to introduce these damaging plans. When Truss was appointed as minister responsible for early years care it became clear that the threat to my profession was very real indeed. Thousands of early years professionals and concerned parents have since signed the petition and left heartfelt comments about why this policy would be damaging to the sector.

We are not against reform of the sector. We are certainly not against reducing costs to parents – money’s tight right now for all of us (and let’s be very clear – no one’s getting rich from childminding – we do it because we love it). The proposed model, however, will not succeed in cost reduction – it will simply pave the way for big business to take over.

The truth is, I, and many colleagues, have several concerns, the most important being the government are looking to cut the early years budget without understanding the potential impact on the welfare and safeguarding of the children.

Higher adult to child ratios are being considered for all early years settings. Some think this is a good idea – they say that it can reduce cost to parents and raise income to childminders. However in this country, ratios have been maintained at the similar levels for good reason – it ensures that each child can be supported in their learning and development, and kept safe. Some things are more important than numbers on the balance sheet.

I am not against increased ratios in the right circumstances, to support a particular child or family in the short term. Indeed this is covered within the Early Years Foundation Stage 2012, and I am personally caring for an increased number of children at the moment to provide continuity of care for two children.

However, in the real world these ‘right circumstances’ do not happen very often. Children are not something that you can ‘switch off’ or put on a shelf to deal with another day. Children need support and they need an adult available when the need arises. When that adult is not available, the child is at risk of harm – not just risk of physical accident, but also the risk of emotional damage through low self-esteem if not supported effectively. However there is more to it – if the adult is available to meet the needs of one child as and when needed – who is meeting the needs of the other children?

The second aspect is the idea that childcare costs could be reduced by increasing numbers, but any additional income is desperately needed to keep fees stable, and to invest in training and pay, and to subsidise inadequate investment in Nursery Education Funding, and will not result in reduced fees for parents.

We are open to looking at making the system work better. All we ask for is that reforms are based on evidence – and the evidence is that these proposals have not worked in the Netherlands. I hope the government takes the time to consider all options and the impact each would have on parent’s choice, children’s well being, and childcare businesses. SO far, despite a 10,000 strong petition, emails, letters and phone calls, we are yet to receive a satisfactory answer.

It’s time for the Government to come clean on its plans for early years education and open up a full consultation on this issue – children’s welfare depends on it.

Sign the petition here