A solitary file sitting on a shelf in the Childminding Ireland office is symbolic of the starting point for an inevitable wave of change that is going to engulf a hugely important strand of childcare in this country.
The white sticker on the spine of the folder indicates its contents with a handwritten line: “Tusla Registered Childminders”.
With only an estimated 120 of approximately 35,000 childminders falling into this category and only about two-thirds of whom are members of Childminding Ireland, one small file is enough, it would seem, to hold their details.
That has to change, everybody knows that. But how and when are the big unknowns.
The imperatives of child protection and, more recently, the phased introduction of the Affordable Childcare Scheme, mean this self-employed brigade, on whom many families depend greatly, have to be accountable to the State. And, it can be argued, vice versa.
As the system stands, there is no way for the vast majority of childminders to register because the means is only there for those minding four or more unrelated, pre-school children to do so. Even if the Affordable Childcare Scheme, which is available only to parents using registered providers, was thought by the public to be a “carrot” for childminders to register immediately, they can’t actually comply yet.
Then there is the problem that regulations were developed with centre-based care in mind, so the current system is really not applicable to a home environment.
Regulation of all childminders is recommended in a report published last March by a Working Group on reforms and supports for the childminding sector, established by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone. But talk in that publication of supporting childminders' "stepped migration" to registration is acknowledgment that it is going to be a long process.
To reform but not ruin a traditional and very valuable community resource is the challenge. Contrasting experiences abroad, post regulatory moves, are worth noting.
In France, the registered childminding workforce has nearly doubled from over 166,700 in 1995 to 327,775 in 2016 and is the most popular form of childcare for children aged under three. Whereas the number of registered childminders in England has declined from 103,000 in 1996 down to 43,500 in 2017 due, it is said, to reduced networks and burdensome paperwork, leading to rising numbers of informal childminders.
The overstretched childcare system here needs these minders. Despite inaction at official level up to now, State policy-makers know the childminding network enables parents to contribute to the national coffers by working outside the home, particularly in rural areas where there may be no centre-based care within reach, even if that was what was desired.
"Change is very difficult for people especially as, generally, the childminding sector is working well," says the CEO of Childminding Ireland, Bernadette Orbinski Burke, who chaired the working group on reform. Parental satisfaction rating is "incredible", she remarks, referring to the findings of a parental survey carried out for the working group report: 71.8 per cent said they were "very satisfied" and a further 21.4 were "satisfied".
In follow-up to the working group's report, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is expected to publish a paper this December outlining the approach for reform and probable timescales, with finer details to follow.
“This Minister is the first Minister to really pay real attention to the sector,” says Orbinski Burke. “I don’t think it is being rushed, I think it will be done at a pace.”
She singles out “the thresholds” as the most crucial aspect initially. “To enter a system, you are going to need some verifiable quality assurance piece and it is what level that is pitched at that is going to be critical to engagement.”
Considering that only a relatively small number, 700, of childminders are members of Childminding Ireland, which is the sector’s only self-regulating body and collective voice, engagement is clearly going to be a challenge.
The voluntary organisation, which has called for registration of childminders for years, insists its members are Garda-vetted, have insurance and sign up to a code of ethics. From next July it will also make it mandatory to have done a paediatric first-aid course – although most members have already – and completed Tusla’s online child protection module.
Are these the sort of requirements they would like to see for a State registration system?
“We are assuming it is not an unreasonable basket of evidence to have,” Orbinski Burke replies. “We want to try and support members to be as qualified as possible.”
Just what formal education qualifications should be deemed necessary for childminding was something that the working group had to agree to disagree on. Some members felt very keenly it should be Fetac level 5, says Burke, others felt strongly that this level was not needed – that it’s not required internationally and of no proven benefit in this context.
Childminding Ireland is halfway through holding a series of workshops around the country with childminders – its members and non-members – and also some parents, to not only raise awareness of impending reform but also gather views on how it should be shaped. They’ve been to Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Wicklow, Tallaght in Dublin, Galway and Athlone, and plan to do seven more after the summer. So, what is the view from the heart of childminding communities?
“I think the anxieties are around being turned into ‘mini crèches’,” says Orbinski Burke, sitting in the first-floor offices of Childminding Ireland (CI) in Arklow, Co Wicklow. Coming from a business background and previously having worked with the international aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), she joined the organisation as CEO in 2013.
Like four of the five CI staff, she works only part-time – or, at least, “is paid part-time”, she quips. Having used a childminder herself for her daughter, who has just sat the Junior Certificate, Orbinski Burke is passionate about childminding and the benefits it provides to children – and indeed the whole family.
“They are not just caring for the children, they are often supporting the families,” she points out. “They have this very close relationship with families and the bonds last for years and years. And if there are difficulties in the families, they are very often the support mechanism.”
In rural areas, keeping children locally with childminders can be hugely important for national schools
There is high anxiety among childminders about the changing childcare landscape and there is almost a feeling that they are being criticised for being outside the system – although for the vast majority of them there is no system to join, she points out.
“They work very long hours; they work very hard for relatively low pay. There is naturally and understandably a real sense of grievance at the perception and lack of recognition of the huge contribution they make to the childcare sector.”
There is also anger that the focus has been on centre-based care and they feel childminders get no support and acknowledgment. Small things they do get, such as the childminding development grant – in theory a possible €1,000 every two years – isn’t really operating the way it should, she explains.
While they have to spend money first and claim it back with receipts, some County Childcare Committees only offer it to Tusla-registered childminders and some won’t offer it at all.
“So, depending on where you live, your access to the grant is severely restricted or non-existent.”
Understandably, she continues, they are wondering will they be cared for in this new system? “There is a real concern that this won’t be done properly and that they will end up over-regulated and under-resourced.”
They worry will their business continue to be sustainable and will it still be childminding as they know it? “Obviously nobody wants to lose their living but also they know the value of what they do and how the children benefit.” There would be huge sadness if that were lost.
In rural areas, keeping children locally with childminders, can be hugely important for national schools. If parents commuting to nearby towns have to bring their children with them, they are much more likely to attend a national school there, rather than one down the road.
The prospect of inspections and how they might work is a big worry for childminders – and not because they don’t believe they are doing a good job, she stresses. But what they hear from Tusla-registered childminders and centre-based providers stokes their apprehension.
However, Orbinski Burke acknowledges that Tusla has gathered feedback from childminders and is working on specific inspection procedures to suit this home-based sector, rather than the current ones designed for centre-based care.
The working group report suggests a "sampling" system of inspections in the short-term but the chief executive of Early Childhood Ireland, Teresa Heeney, which represents providers of centre-based care, told Health + Family last May: "We cannot tolerate a situation where they are part of the [affordable childcare] scheme but are not inspected and registered with Tusla. In Scotland they can manage to inspect every childminder; I think we can do the same."
You have to be practical, at least to start, counters Orbinski Burke. Maybe in three or five years’ time it might be possible. Originally crèches were allowed to open and register without inspection, she points out and, in the same way that regulation has been incremental in that sector, so it will have to be with childminders.
The pace of change in the childminding sector will be largely down to the Department of Children, she agrees.
“A lot of it would need funding. We would hope that in Budget 2019 there would be recognition of the importance of supporting the childminding sector.”
It is so important, for the sake of families and the wider community, to prop up childminders, she adds. It mustn’t end up in a situation where “it’s only when you take the pegs away, you realise how important they are”.
‘The current system does not cater for childminding’
Talk of “mandatory registration” is not helpful in trying to entice unregistered childminders to register or become affiliated to a childminding organisation, says Aideen McCormack, one of the small number of childminders who are registered.
Currently caring for six children, ranging in age from 16 months to five years, at her home in Ennis, Co Clare, she meets the criteria for registration, which is minding four or more unrelated, pre-school children. But she knows other childminders, who care for fewer children and for whom there is no system of registration, are fearful of what lies ahead. She favours the introduction of a system that would focus solely on childminding, “similar to, and building on, the support service currently provided by Childminding Ireland”.
“As a Tusla-registered childminder, I can tell you that the current system does not cater for childminding,” she says. “There is little appreciation of the fact that childminders are working alone and the regulations applied are, in short, a copy and paste of those applied to large centre-based settings.
“I currently spend my weekends catching up on paperwork that I should be doing during work hours. If I were to do the paperwork during work hours, who would care for the children?”
A mother of two teenagers, Martin (17) and Hannah (15), Aideen began work as an unregistered childminder when her son was a year old. She took a two-year career break because he had separation anxiety and just would not settle with the three different childminders she tried.
Then, instead of returning to her job after two years, she registered in 2004 with the HSE and Childminding Ireland and committed to a new career as a childminder. She enjoys how it allows her to be at home for her own children outside school hours and also gives her the chance to play a meaningful part in other families’ lives.
The quality of the service childminders provide is often not understood by the wider community, she believes. Some have years of experience and/or third-level qualifications in early childhood care and education and they use their talents for the benefit of children in a unique, home-from-home environment.
“Real, life-long attachments are formed between caregivers and families,” she points out.
However, she has found the regulatory system she is working under has “changed dramatically” in the last two years, to the detriment of sole childcare providers like her.
“I would have looked forward to an inspection as I would have always felt it was always supportive. It was geared more towards individuals.”
Whereas even in the quality draft framework they sent to childminders before Christmas it was as if they had had just substituted the word childminding on a centre-based document as it referred to things like “50-plus staff and moving equipment – things that are totally impossible for people on their own to do”. She finds it very frustrating and disrespectful
Like Aideen, Anna Syron is a registered childminder and all the mindees at her home outside Ballina, Co Mayo, have come through word of mouth from other parents whose children she has looked after since she started in 2004. She currently cares for seven pre-school children aged between 11 months and five years but most of them are only with her part-time, such as one or two days a week.
During the school year, another three children come to her after school and she also cares for a child with additional needs, who attends school but spends a lot of school hours with her due to ill health or needing therapy sessions.
While Anna believes there should be a mandatory registration process for childminders, new and specific regulations need to be introduced, she says, rather than amending the current ones.
What’s more, “training, support and mentoring would be needed for those in the process over a reasonable time frame. The difference between home-based childcare and centre-based childcare needs to be recognised. Paperwork needs to be kept short and to the point.”
In her experience, parents have a good understanding of what childminding is but at public and official level there appears to be a view “that professionalism is lacking among childminders and that childminding is deficient of the same qualities found in a creche”.
She says childcare facilitated in the home is unique in the way it is individually tailored to each child’s needs and rooted in the community, adding that “childminders are deeply invested in the child”.
Childminding by numbers
– 35,000-plus childminders in State.
– 120 childminders (approximately) registered with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.
– 2.5 children is average number cared for.
– Four or more unrelated, pre-school children is current requirement for registration.