Almost 90,000 young children are cared for by childminders every day, but the vast majority remain exempt from regulation and operate without supervision or support.
In fact, only 120 or so – 0.1 per cent – are registered with authorities and subject to inspection.
Why? Many fear being penalised for working outside the tax system. Others fear inspection, paperwork or may not be aware of the supports that are available.
For hard-pressed parents, childminding is a crucial option. It is generally more affordable and accessible than a creche or childcare centre and tends to offer much greater flexibility.
Childminders may lack formal qualifications, vetting or insurance, but most parents are more than happy to look beyond this in exchange for convenience of a “home-from-home” setting.
It is one reason why successive governments have been reluctant to regulate the area: politicians know it a vital part of our childcare system and have been fearful of mandatory requirements that might lead to providers closing their doors, sparking a wider childcare crisis.
This could be about to change.
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone is set to publish a major working group report which sets out how a system of mandatory regulation should work.
She has said children in all forms of childcare should be entitled to the same types of safeguard over quality and safety.
Quality assurance system
The report proposes a new quality assurance system where paid childminders would face inspections and be required to meet minimum standards such as basic childcare qualifications and having insurance and health and safety risk assessments.
To encourage them to sign up, paid childminders would be eligible to avail of tax relief on their income and provide childcare under State-subsidised schemes.
A big decision in the report is to exclude relatives – such as grandparents – who provide childminding services in their homes. Relatives, it says, tend to provide “kinship care” rather than a business arrangement. Where money does change hands, it says, it tends to be below market rates.
Au pairs and nannies are also excluded on the grounds they are directly employed by parents, unlike self-employed childminders.
Regulating the childminding sector is ambitious and it’s very uncertain whether it will be successful.
It will require a major cultural shift for a sector that has always existed in the shadows. For example, attempts over the past decade or more to encourage childminders to register – with training supports, capital grants and €15,000 tax relief – only ever led to very small numbers availing of the scheme.
However, a mandatory regime could change attitudes quickly. So, too, could the fact childminders would be eligible to deliver State-subsidised childcare.
This would mean, for example, that parents who use registered childminders would be able to avail of a €20-a-week universal childcare subsidy introduced last September.
Pressure from parents to avail of these subsidies will only increase when they are made more generous over the coming years.
It is a tricky balancing act: trying to make it attractive for childminders to enter into a formal regulatory system, while also putting in place quality safeguards.
It is easy to go too far. In England, the number of registered childminders has fallen by half over the past 20 years due to reduced supports and an increase in paperwork.
However, countries such as France have managed to build a thriving and growing childminding sector: good working conditions , mandatory training and supports for childminding led to a doubling in the number of registered childminders over the past 20 years.