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Childcare reform: Will regulation destroy Ireland’s culture of childminding?

Reforming without ruining a traditional and highly valued part of the childcare landscape is a complex challenge

The loss of more than a third of the childminding workforce in Scotland over the past six years offers a lesson for Ireland in the risks that come with childcare reform.

The chief executive of the Scottish Childminding Association (SCA), Graeme McAlister, believes it is hugely important that Ireland learns from “unintended consequences” when parental entitlement to free childcare was expanded in Scotland. “Regardless of which country you are operating in, if you have a national policy that is ambitious, large scale and being developed at pace, mistakes are made,” he says.

The Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman, this week announced a step towards regulation of childminders but what this process will entail is yet to be decided. For now, he has secured approval from Cabinet for preparation of legislation to change the legal status of childminders.

But he has dangled the hope before parents using childminders that they might begin to be able to benefit from subsidies under the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) from towards the end of 2024. With the minimum universal subsidy having risen from 50 cent to €1.40 an hour, that can’t come soon enough for parents. However, reforming without ruining a traditional and highly valued part of the childcare landscape is a complex challenge.


“The NCS is no use to anybody if they can’t find a childcare place,” says Leigh Ann Gilmore, a childminder in Lucan, Co Dublin, who is concerned about what registration will mean for those using their own home to care for non-relative children. (Nannies, who work in a family’s home, are not regarded as childminders.)

The Department of Children reckons there are about 15,000 childminders; Childminding Ireland (CI) puts the total closer to 35,000. The one certainty is nobody knows, which means there is also uncertainty about what the cost of reform will be to the State.

“They have accelerated this – this was never supposed to be happening in 2024,” says Gilmore, referencing the 2021-2028 timeline of the National Action Plan for Childminding. “Accelerating it is only going to ensure it is a complete mess-up, as opposed to a half mess-up, in my opinion.”

Registration is not the issue in the Scottish childminding crisis, as that has been a requirement for decades. Rather it has been precipitated primarily by “over regulation”, says McAlister, as the Scottish government moved to almost double parents’ entitlement to free childcare from 600 to 1,140 hours a year. The burden of administration involved in meeting requirements of up to three different scrutiny bodies has been reported by childminders as the top reason for closing their doors.

“It has had a devastating effect on the childminding workforce, which has declined by 34 per cent in the past six years with the loss of 1,926 childminding businesses and over 11,000 childminding places for families. We have recently projected that, without intervention, these losses could almost double by July 2026.”

If it’s done well, it will be great; if it isn’t, it could be devastating for childminding

—  Bernadette Orbinski Burke, chief executive, Childminding Ireland

There are similar dangers for Ireland, he suggests, not just with the cultural change in introducing registration but in the nature of the operating requirements, inspections and quality assurance that follow. Using formal qualifications as a measure of a childminder’s quality would be questionable because they typically bring their own parenting and life experience to the role.

“A fundamental mistake is a generic standard on a centre-based model. You have to look at the provider type first and understand how it operates and then how would you apply a standard to that.”

O’Gorman is promising childminder-specific regulations that are “proportionate and appropriate” and which will be developed in consultation with childminders. But the chief executive of CI, Bernadette Orbinski Burke, warns about the need to be very conscious of the “gravitational pull of centre-based care. A lot of people involved in planning are from a centre-based background and have a centre-based mind frame.”

Orbinski Burke, who chaired the working group on childminding reform, leading to the national action plan, says her organisation believes it is reasonable that childminders be regulated in an appropriate way. “If it’s done well, it will be great; if it isn’t, it could be devastating for childminding.”

Often regarded as the “poor relative” of the childcare sector, childminding really does work for families, communities and children, she points out. During Covid they could support frontline workers, typically being the ones providing childcare to those who work shifts and unsocial hours. This flexibility, the “home from home” setting, continuity of care generating close bonds with families and benefits for children of a mixed age group, are what attracts parents.

If, as in Scotland, childminders here were to be driven out, “that reduces capacity and reduces parental choice”, says McAlister. But for now, Orbinski Burke urges childminders “not to panic and to get involved with the consultations because it is their voices and the volume of their voices that is going to help shape their sector”.

Historically, childminders are difficult to engage with because they work on their own and few are involved with any structures. CI, which has Garda vetting, first aid training, completion of Tusla’s safeguarding children e-course and insurance as prerequisites for membership, has only 700 members. However, it interacts with a wider community of about 5,000, including 2,000 parents using childminders. The tax exemption for childcare providers declaring an annual fee income of less than €15,000, which would be mostly childminders, was claimed by just 690 in 2019 – coincidentally, or not, mirroring the size of the CI membership.

Families using childminder Anne Ryan in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow already benefit from cheaper childcare through the NCS because she is one of the 79 childminders registered with Tusla at the end of 2022. Currently, Tusla registration is only open – and a legal requirement – to childminders if they mind four or more preschool children, or seven children of any age.

This exclusion from registration is what initial legislative changes will address. However, being registered with Tusla doesn’t mean a childminder has to offer the NCS and a number don’t, not wanting the extra paperwork.

Getting registered was the hard part, says Ryan, who had the required level 5 qualification and has since completed level 8. She wasn’t expecting the expense of having to put up a new fence between her and their neighbours after the existing one was deemed too low. She also had to replace her fire extinguishers with a different type. The whole process took at least seven months.

You don’t want to be inspected and have people come in and look at your stuff but if you are Tusla registered that is what you have to do

—  Anne Ryan, Tusla-registered childminder

“Once I was actually registered, it has been fine. My day-to-day looking after the kids hasn’t changed. It has added things in like you have to have all your cleaning rotas and risk assessments that you have to do every day, which is a bit of a pain.”

She understands why a creche with multiple staff members might need a cleaning tick sheet to keep record of who’s doing what. “But when you are working on your own in your own house, you know if you haven’t cleaned your bathroom.”

Ryan accepts she could have an unannounced inspection at any time. She has no worries about the quality of her care but it’s “silly things”, such as if the inspector were to turn up just after she has been getting her own children out to school “and the kitchen looks like a bomb has hit it”, that make her wonder what might happen. “You don’t want to be inspected and have people come in and look at your stuff but if you are Tusla registered that is what you have to do.”

This is what Gilmore, who is not eligible to be registered as she is minding just three preschool children, believes could be off-putting. “There is a huge fear that Tusla will come in here, tell people to change their homes, and at the end of the day these are our homes.” She is also concerned that the paperwork load could be similar to that for creches “but childminders are only one person, we’re lucky to find time to pee”.

On RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland earlier this week, O’Gorman assured childminders that this process would be “step by step, not big bang, not compulsion”. His department says the proposal to amend the Child Care Act is to allow for future regulation of childminding, “which would bring all paid, non-relative childminders within the scope of regulation”.

Ryan was assistant manager of a preschool in Scotland and one of the reasons she left was too much bureaucracy “taking the fun out of the job”. When she moved here with her Irish husband, she found out how easy it was to be a childminder because “basically nobody cared”. But, coming from a regulated background, she consulted the childminding adviser in the local childcare committee and she thought that this light-touch support in setting up worked well.

Now, 15 years down the line, she feels things are going the way of the Scottish scenario. “It is going to be over-regulated, over complicated.” To ensure the future of childminding, the department needs to prove her wrong.

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting