AGMs are usually pretty boring events. This one was not, and historically, the National Child Minding Association meeting on 30 September 2006 may prove to have been one of the turning points in the development both of the child care profession and the service. It may not have seemed so to the forty or fifty participants, but the changes which the meeting signified for the NCMA reflect, and will have an impact on, wider developments in child care.
The NCMA was founded in 1977 at a meeting held in the unlikely setting of a bus depot in Huddersfield. As Penelope Leach, the President of NCMA for the past few years, pointed out, it has come a long way since then. The organisation grew rapidly from hundreds to thousands of members, reaching a recent peak of about 50,000, where membership seems to have plateaued. Out of a workforce of 72,000 Registered Childminders that is a good percentage, far ahead of any comparable child care organisation.
The aims established by the NCMA when it was set up are essentially the same today. Its initial services, though more basic then, are also still key services today – the provision of advice and information to workers who essentially work in their own homes in self-employed isolation, offering public liability insurance, publishing handbooks and other materials and acting as the voice for childminders on the national stage, enhancing their status as a professional group.
Childminders or Nurseries?
Penelope Leach said that when she joined NCMA it was already a successful organisation, but the public image of childminding did not match the professionalism of the workforce. She wanted to see childminding accepted alongside nursery provision as a high quality choice considered by parents when choosing for their children.
In Britain there has been a tendency to think first of nurseries and to consider childminding second. It may be that as a nation we think nursery nurses must be better trained or that we like nurseries’ bricks and mortar as providing a solid base for the service. It may be that parents – mothers in particular? – see childminders as a possible threat to their own role in the eyes of their children, and see the more impersonal institutional style of nurseries as less of a personal challenge.
Why Home-based Care is Best
Basing her views on extensive research, Penelope Leach argued that childminding had a number of key qualities important to children :
- While nurseries group children by ages, childminders tend to take mixed age groups, which are more akin to family life, and in practical terms, easier to look after.
- Childminding offers greater consistency of care. Within a single day at a nursery, shift work may mean that a number of staff look after a child, while the childminder remains constant. Children only attend nurseries for a few years pre-school, while childminders may continue to look after children before and after school, and often remain close friends of the family years later.
- Adult-child ratios tend to be higher, allowing for a more personal approach, in all forms of home-based child care than in nurseries, where the staff have groups of children to manage. The key to really good early years care in particular is the opportunity which the pattern of care offers to build warm caring relationships.
- Home-based child care can often be more flexible, covering the whole day and even occasional night stop-overs.
- Children attending nurseries tend to have nursery-based programmes – in their rooms or in the playground just outside. Childminders certainly use their own homes and gardens, which will be smaller than nurseries, but they also take children to the shops, to playgroups, to parks, and to collect other children from school; the children see more of life and have a more rounded social education.
- Finally, it may not be what is advertised, but childminders often provide family support, which is not a common feature of nurseries. Through sharing the parenting of a child, they can be alongside the parents and help to find shared solutions to problems in bringing children up.
For all these reasons the NCMA has worked to mark childminding more clearly on the map – with the Government, with local authorities and with other professionals and with parents. It has training systems for childminders and a policy that Registered Childminders should all attain Level 3 over the next decade. It has support systems, with over a thousand groups established country-wide throughout England and Wales. It has quality assurance schemes. It has helplines. And much more. (For details, see the website, www.ncma.org.uk .)
At the political level, NCMA has contributed to Government thinking in the development of the Ten Year Child Care Strategy, which aims for child care to be universally available for under-14s. Indeed, as Penelope Leach pointed out, without the NCMA’s influence, home-based child care might by now have been submerged by group care. Childminding is still not at the forefront of politicians’ minds, however, and NCMA still has its work to do in influencing public policy.
Up to now, the NCMA’s growth has been linear – more members, more services, and bigger budgets. The major change reflected in the AGM was that the NCMA has now had to take a more business-orientated approach in order to govern and manage the scale of its enterprises. It has reduced its managing Board down to ten members, plus the Chair, Susanna Dawson, and it has developed a larger National Policy Forum with members from all the regions to discuss professional issues on which the NCMA should be taking action. The structure is carefully balanced to allow for the broader membership to retain ultimate control through elections, and thus to keep NCMA firmly rooted in practice, while allowing for quick responses and decision-making to permit the level of change required in businesses today.
The Changing Context
As the NCMA has grown, it has ridden the crest of a wave, and its success has been remarkable. The question is whether the change of governance structure will now enable it to remain riding the crest in the face of significant changes in the circumstances surrounding home-based child care services.
The most obvious is that local authority services have been largely restructured to link all services for children together organisationally, and local authorities have been required to create overall plans to meet the needs of children in their areas. Childminders have until now enjoyed a high degree of independence, and have essentially been self-employed, agreeing private contracts with parents. If, from now on, they join portfolios of services based on children’s centres, they will need to co-operate with nurseries, schools and other services as part of a planned system. It is as if local authorities were asked to co-ordinate shopping opportunities, and privately-owned corner shops were asked to co-operate with Asda. The outcome could be greater security for childminders if they obtain a steady flow of work as a result, but there will be a loss of independence, and it remains to be seen how far this shift will go. If universal child care services are funded by the state, for example, will childminders ultimately become akin to foster carers or even local authority employees?
In parallel, the new Children’s Workforce Development Council is taking a fundamental look at the shape of the child care profession, and it is possible that new titles and identities will emerge, challenging existing established thinking. Will home-based child carers replace childminders, or will a new identity as children’s workers or social pedagogues emerge?
As Penelope Leach pointed out, the key to a good system of universal child care will in the end be money. She argued for the adoption of the approach taken throughout much of Europe where child care is seen as a service which, like education, the state should pay for, rather than rely wholly on parental payments. It remains to be seen what coming Prime Ministers and Governments will do, and what priority they will attach to child care.
Ten years from now, the level of change will be apparent. For the present, it is clear that fundamental changes are taking place, and as NCMA positions itself to meet the changing needs of its members under its Chief Executive, Liz Bayram, it is reflecting the wider developments. There is still plenty for NCMA to achieve, both politically, and in establishing in the minds of parents what a good service Registered Childminders can offer their children.