A word of caution: this is a lo-o-o-ong one and it’s not funny. They’re all my own ramblings and you might not agree with some of it. You might not even agree with any of it at all for that matter. Oh, and if you’ve seen this somewhere before then I should let you know that I’ve amended it a bit because I’ve had a few sleeps since January and I’ve found a bit more fat to chew. You might wanna go and get yourself a brew first…seriously though, you might.

Schools are under immense pressure right now. Many were already subsidising the 15 hour (term time) offer to all 3 and 4 year olds long before the 2 year old offer even came about. We childcare providers took that on the chin. Lost a chunk of our toddlers to brand spanking new purpose-built 2 year old units we did. Wow, were we angry? We all thought we’d go under then didn’t we? We were on the verge of shutting up shop and giving in and yet, here we are. And now that all eligible 3 and 4 year olds (which was grossly underestimated originally by the government by the way since so long as parents are earning the equivalent of 16 hours at national minimum/living wage [depending on their age] and so long as it’s less £100,000 per year then yeah, they’re eligible – really) will be able to take up the 30 “free” hours per week offer (term time) from this September then schools will be getting more brand spanking new purpose-built units only they’ll be for 3 year and 4 year olds instead I guess. Either that or the 2 year olds will be given back to childcare providers because school staff never actually really wanted to change their nappies and toilet train them in the first place did they? And why should they? They’ve been to university and everything you know?

“We’re not childcare providers. If we wanted to wipe snotty noses and change smelly nappies all day then we’d be working in daycare wouldn’t we? Now wouldn’t we?”

Oh how I heard that argument a million times over. The irony of it though.

Now, we’re supposed to be thinking that getting more parents back into work to keep those national insurance contributions and income taxes coming in is a good thing, right? Wouldn’t it necessarily mean then that there would be more children to care for and for more hours per week ergo more sustainability for our businesses ergo more choice and better quality for families? That it could even lighten the load for grandparents who can enjoy a bit of their retirement (not that they don’t enjoy being with their grandkids mind but it’d be nice to get a round of golf in now and again or take a little trip away once in a while wouldn’t it?) And frankly, it probably would all be hunkydory if they stopped calling it “free” childcare instead of what it really should be – subsidised childcare – and if we were paid a decent rate of pay to reflect the marvellous work we do day in and day out. Not one rate for all necessarily but a rate to reflect where we are in the country, the qualifications of our team, the quality of the provision we offer etc.

We’re always told by the press about the “rising costs of childcare”. Don’t you just hate that? What rising costs? Oh, that’ll be the rising cost in insurance, fuel, food, rates, rents, wages, training yadayadayada. You know, those expenses we have absolutely no control over whatsoever? If you’re anything like me, you might have raised your fees just once or twice since registering and I bet you know exactly how bad I felt when I had to put up mine. It’s excruciating.  Even when I knew I just couldn’t keep my head above water for one more week without doing it.

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When I think of how big my student loan is that enabled me to get my Certificate in Education, my Early Years Foundation Degree and my Bachelors in Education Studies so that I could complete my transformation from one career to another, which I did so that I could raise the quality of, and demand for, my provision. So I could narrow that achievement gap. Improve children’s outcomes. I’d love to do my Masters but my education so far has achieved very, very little insofar as attracting higher pay. If I actually thought about that for longer than a few moments I think I’d just break down and cry. My hourly rate is much the same as any other local Childminder who doesn’t have the letters after their name or the dreaded demands for student loan repayments at the end of every tax year. It’s certainly nowhere near a Teacher’s salary that much I can tell you. All that money they earn to wipe snotty noses and change smelly nappies all day. (Well, come on, probably not the Teachers, probably the underpaid and undervalued Teaching Assistants who are continually getting stuffed left, right and centre). And those paid holidays too, and pay even when they’re sick (what the…?)  And their pensions to look forward to. And it all goes into their bank accounts every single month without them having to invoice for their services and making sure they put the correct purchase order numbers on and everything. And don’t get me wrong, I know the teaching profession has its own fair share of problems and I know this because of their industrial action but hey, at least they have union representation. And I really do know that it’s no picnic for them either but hey, compared to us, they’re having a flaming banquet. No, my Masters is a luxury I just can’t afford.

And another thing. You’d be forgiven for thinking it odd perhaps for a Childminder like me to champion parents having the right to choose to remain at home to nurture their children themselves – without any formal childcare whatsoever and without being demonised for it. For how would I earn a living if every Mum and Dad stayed at home? Heck, I don’t care, I’m resourceful, I’d find something. I’d have loved to have been able to do that but I couldn’t. Because I factored in the cost of bringing up baby Turner as part of the process of planning a family and I have to say, I didn’t have much of a choice really – there was just no way I could afford not to return to work. How sad, because if Mams and Dads were supported and actually praised for remaining home to care for our own children then there would be no childcare crisis at all. But I’ll have to leave that argument right there because I could go on all day about how jealous I am of stay-at-home-parents and the benefits of home-schooling, I really could. And how absolutely stupid I feel for not starting my childcare career before my son started school. By far the daftest decision I have ever made in my life and my biggest enduring regret. What an idiot.

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But Childminders do share nurseries’ lack of appetite for delivering the “free” 30 hour offer and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why at first but I think it’s because nobody had been frank enough to spell out to us in a simple way how we can actually participate with the initiative in a way that won’t put us out of business. You know, like getting the regular monthly advance payments and the fair hourly rate we currently enjoy from our parents. (I’m lucky, I’ve been being paid monthly in advance for funded children for ages now, phew). We hadn’t been told that our funding rate would cripple our business and that we’d not be able to ask parents to pay the difference to keep us going. That we’d have to think of crazier and crazier things to make up our losses. That we would effectively be subsidising parents’ childcare bills so that they could enjoy “free” childcare. The media do like to portray the early years sector as a money-grabbing machine, out to rob parents of their hard-earned wages. They really do seem to resent us for earning a living for caring for other people’s children while they go off to do “real” work. But really, should we honestly be expected to just break even year after year? Not even make the tiniest profit without feeling so terribly guilty? We too are demonised.

We’ve all read the headlines:

Nurseries ‘could close’ due to government’s 30-hour free childcare plan (The Guardian, 20.04.16)

Doubling of free childcare ‘could force nurseries to close’ (BBC, also 20.04.16)

and we’re understandably scared. Afterall, mere playgroup gossip this ain’t. You only have to read every imaginable & justifiable fear put forth in the Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding facebook group to see how genuinely afraid people are. Oh it’s scary alright. But hang on a minute – silly me – there’s this superb website out there funded by the DfE that is here to support us all through these trying times and it’s worth every single penny. Honest. Their resources have smashing little things like third party links to SWOT analysis sheets and they give canny little tips like storing resources in outside containers to free up a bit more floor space to fit another kid in, and opening for longer days – weekends too (never mind our own kids eh?) and identifying or creating our unique selling point. I know one local nursery for sure that offers breakfasts-to-go for busy parents. Hey, maybe that could work for us too? I know what’s coming next. They’re gonna talk about relaxing ratios again aren’t they? You know, like, we take more kids in but for the same money?  We run around even more ragged than we already are just to keep costs down for parents? Yeah, that’s always been a brilliant idea hasn’t it? Because overworked and tired, underpaid and resentful practitioners are exactly what we need more of to look after our little balls of pure energy aren’t they?

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And as selfish as this might sound to our colleagues in schools and daycare settings, what we Childminders must remember is that we are in a truly unique position.  The truth of the matter is that we can do things they simply can’t do. The kind of things that made us decide to become Childminders in the first place and the kind of things that make parents and carers choose us, rather than schools and nurseries, to help them to care for and nurture their children. We are extremely resilient, flexible and adaptable. We’ve a track record of rolling with the punches. We’re Weebles we are. We wobble but we don’t fall down.  What’s so amazing about early years practitioners is how we can find solutions to just about anything. In fact, I really do believe that the government actually rely on this. They know fine well that we’ll all get our heads together, present all the awkward questions, find all the pros and cons of all the options, have a bit of argy-bargy and then finally figure this whole mess out. Saves the ministers doing it – they haven’t got a flaming clue anyway about the sector. And that’s why I’m not losing any sleep over it just yet. That and the fact that the pressure right now is getting so intense – what with that wonderful complaint to the Competition and Markets Authority concerning the government’s ‘abuse’ of the childcare market – that I’d be completely stunned if it ever came off at all – I really would. Well done guys.

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Yep, there’ll be months and months of building work going on as schools and nurseries (but mostly schools I reckon) cash in on the £50 million of capital funding to support the creation of even more early years places. Again. (Every LA has a duty to provide a place for every single eligible child – it should be them losing sleep, not us). Lots of lovely, shiny, purpose-built extensions and state-of-the-art conversions. Don’t get too excited though, Childminders can’t apply for the grant. What we can apply for (apparently) is a childcare business grant but if you follow this link it’s blatantly apparent that this scheme is awaiting a re-launch. Don’t hold your breath though but seriously, keep checking back regularly to the site for updates – I will be.

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Aforementioned website now live! and as you can see it’s set up to support only newly registered early years Childminders, childcare providers on domestic premises and Childminder Agencies to enter the market and not to support existing Childminders afterall. Quelle surprise. They’re like a dog with a bone with those agencies aren’t they? So schools and nurseries can get dosh to expand and create more spaces but we can’t. Didn’t see that coming at all.

Many, many nurseries are taking the stance that they simply won’t make places available whilst, sadly, some nurseries will be forced to close as there’s just no more ways to remain sustainable even with the greatest of imagination and most impressive juggling skills which means even fewer places still. It’s grim alright. And although this isn’t good for children – or families – or our amazing practitioners for that matter – it does [brutally] provide another window of opportunity for Childminders to fill the gap. (I told you, I make no apologies for being so frank, it’s just the way it is).

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So picture this: the schools will be full to the rafters (I’m under no illusion here – eligible children are obviously going to be steered towards schools’ nets first – just as the eligible 2 year olds are now) and nurseries can’t or won’t offer “free” places.  Now, the system will either be the rip-roaring success that we know childminding agencies to be; the government will admit that it was all a really terrible idea to start with and abandon it (not likely, childminding agencies being a case in point) or it will all go ahead but all eligible children will be cared for by Childminders – even those who are not yet good or outstanding because LAs won’t have the luxury of being quite so choosy. Even those who “require improvement” will be able to offer it. They’ve had to change that because there wouldn’t be enough places otherwise. Arguably then, quality of care will drop although I know that in real life, an OFSTED grade is not always a realistic indicator of quality since I’ve met many, many Childminders who “are not yet good/outstanding because…” whom I’ve actually found to be wonderful childcare providers with oodles of glowing recommendations from immensely satisfied parents.

But okay, in some areas we might be being offered a funding rate that’s lower than what we actually do charge and that really is a crying shame and does nothing at all for morale. We have 2 choices then. We can either choose to do nothing (hey, even Childcare Works is imparting that little nugget) and carry on providing childcare to those who are ineligible; wraparound care for schoolies; and babies from 0 to 3. And, if we’re not already doing so, we could also start offering the 2 year old entitlement to eligible families because actually, very few Childminders are currently doing this which is a pity really. Because although there’s those who keep telling us about ‘all the paperwork’ needed to deliver not just the 30 hour offer but to deliver even the existing 15 hour free nursery entitlement offers, this is largely untrue. Clearly, requirements (and hourly rates) vary from local authority to local authority and it’s prudent to check first whether you think that what’s expected of you is do-able but for the most part, I’m under the impression (and it’s certainly my own personal experience) that all that’s required is the compulsory 2 year old progress check that is required for all children in your care – not just those eligible for the free 2 year old offer – and the usual monthly invoice. We’ll be in direct competition with nurseries all over again but fighting over even fewer children. Providers will all get less income and eventually go out of business and no eligible families will get their “free” childcare. In fact, nobody will get any childcare of any description except those that are lucky enough to get 30 hours “free” childcare places in a school. Which is definitely not a childcare setting. It’s a school. With staff who are definitely not childcare providers. They are Teachers.

There is a requirement to register with HMRC to offer the 30 hours “free” childcare (which takes about 2 minutes I’m told) and I’ve heard mention of having to submit parents’ eligibility codes (or whatever they’ll be called) regularly. Hopefully it’ll be more of a nuisance than a real ordeal but we can’t know this yet until we know how the early implementers are getting along. I’ve every confidence in our wonderful government that any hitches will definitely be identified and ironed out well in time for September because I’ve always been a glass half full kinda gal. Either that or just plain naïve. But anyway,  if our LA or HMRC or anybody else for that matter wants more from us than we want to give then we just don’t sign up to deliver the offer. I have to admit though, my LA’s FNE Officer is as supportive as she can possibly be and I’ve never been left to flounder or been expected to do more than I want to. I mean, she listens and listens to me whinge and moan on the telephone, answers every email and is even more than happy to have one to one, face to face meetings whenever I ask for one, at her place of work or mine and at times to suit me. How fantastic is that? I’ll never ever take her for granted because I’ve no idea how long we’ll have her for. Our LA’s early years team gets smaller and smaller every year.

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Remember, the “free” 30 hours are for only 38 weeks per year – not 52 weeks of the year. Childminders can s-t-r-e-t-c-h those hours over however many weeks per year we work. Schools can’t. So, by placing their child in your care rather than in the care of a school, parents don’t have the extra hassle of having to find childcare to wrap around the school term. Personally, this will actually suit me better because I don’t really want to make myself available for the full 30 hours because that’s actually more hours than I currently work. It’s taken me years to get to working the hours that really, really suit me and I’m not that keen on doing more than I already do if I’m honest because then I wouldn’t have time to do other fun stuff like this would I? I would definitely stick to my 15 hour per week minimum contract so no using up 25 hours a week at a school or nursery and trying to lump me with the scrappy remaining 5 hours because I definitely see that being a thing. This gives me a minimum weekly income per child which gives me some measure of reliable and predictable income which any Childminder will appreciate is not to be sniffed at. I have to say though that I expect nursery managers have a much, much tougher time trying to keep their boat afloat and that although we’re all in the same kind of boat, theirs is probably that little bit leakier than ours.

Remember too that we can pick up and drop off children and as much as we might not want to, we can charge extra for this because the 30 hour offer is to cover childcare only. In fact we’re actually positively encouraged to do so. There is absolutely no expectation (nor has there ever been) that we will absorb the cost of meals and nappies and outings etc but we must give parents the option of supplying their own provisions or opting out of activities that incur an extra expense and this must not determine whether we offer a place or not. PACEY’s Susanna Kalitowski explains this perhaps better than I can but we’ve still not been given any real practical advice on how we Childminders can get around it. We have to navigate the posts on the Champagne Nurseries Lemonade Funding group instead (and trust me, it’s so compelling that once you’re on there it’s awfully hard to log off. My husband’s barely seen me this past fortnight). What I do know is that for an extra fee we can pick up children from home, drop them off at home, pick them up from nursery and drop them off at nursery because it’s highly probable that a parent will split the 30 hours between a Childminder and a school. That’s if they can find a school that’s willing to deliver the offer because there’s even talk now that many schools are not on board with it either.

So, we might choose not to offer the full 30 hours per week at all. Or we might only open for business 3 days a week or we might be open Monday to Sunday from 5am to 9pm (God forbid) and hey, we might even be a Childminder who only provides breakfast and after school provision term time only. That’s entirely our choice. We do what meets the needs of our families and ideally in a way that complements our own families too. We might choose to deliver the funded hours between set times (like sessional care) and charge parents an extra fee for any period between those sessions. I know that some schools do that now because one of our children does that one day a week. It’s not a top up and it’s not something parents must pay as a condition of taking up a place but it’s also something I definitely don’t want to have to do. However, if I have to do it then I will because schools won’t think twice about it I can tell you and parents ultimately are still facing heavily reduced childcare fees when you consider that they may also get a contribution towards those extras on top of the 30 “free” weekly hours. And let’s face it, they could always, if they wanted to, pick up their child from us after the morning session, take them home for lunch and then return them to us for the afternoon session. It’s highly unlikely, granted, because it’s just too darned inconvenient isn’t it? Course it is. Yet we do it all the time though and shouldn’t feel bad about charging for this. Remember, parents may only be taking their own little one with them whereas we’d be taking the other babies and children we have for the day too so, in fact, it’s potentially 3 times more inconvenient for us and yet we do it come rain or shine (and what a logistical nightmare it sometimes is too – a military operation even. You feel me?)

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And it’s not uncommon for schools to take little ones along to their after school provision after the afternoon nursery session ends which, again, parents will pay an extra fee for. Schools have been charging for lunches for years and years. Schools have been charging for trips for years and years too. So why are we finding it so hard to impose these charges huh? Imagine schools picking up children from a morning session at our home to bring them to their nursery, give them lunch, facilitate their afternoon session, make them dinner then drop them off at our home until their parents arrive to collect them? Imagine that? Just about as imaginable as them dropping them off at dance, music and karate classes and picking them up when they’re finished too. They’re not childcare providers you know? Oh really? Because “30 hours per week free childcare” sounds an awful lot like childcare to me.

Furthermore, with parents being able to access funded hours between the hours of 6am and 8pm, unlike schools, we can open and close whenever we like. Naturally nobody would expect us to work for 14 hours a day (I don’t think they would anyway) but hey, you’re self-employed, you can do what you like. Schools can’t. And if a parent only needs you for 1 hour on a Monday afternoon but for 14 hours on a Tuesday (only 10 of those hours could be funded though – the rest would have to be paid for privately so far as I can make out) then, as of September, you can do this. Because there will no longer be the 2 and a half hour minimum session length.

And while I’m being brutally honest here (because it’s totally necessary) let’s not forget that most of us just don’t have the same overheads and expenses as schools and nurseries do. Most of us don’t have to employ cooks and cleaners and gardeners. Or make staff pension contributions. Or pay for staff training and continuing development. Or the national minimum and living wage. Or business rates. And I hate to rub salt into the wounds, I really, really do, but we actually even enjoy some financial perks so far as our household bills go. I’d like more but still. Anyway, Polly Anna’s Day Nursery in York has some brilliant ideas which can totally be adapted to suit a childminding setting so thanks for that Ken McArthur.

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Now, while all of this investment is being ploughed into schools to enable them to offer more “free” places to young children despite overwhelming evidence supporting children actually starting school much later in childhood, some Childminders will be tapping their fingertips wondering if they will ever fill their vacancies. But, trust me, I am quietly confident that they won’t have to wait for long. For while schools are cramming in more and more 3 and 4 year olds and for longer days, eligible 2 year olds will be squeezed out. But this is good news isn’t it? Because schools (for me) were never the right environment for 2 year olds anyway. But that’s also another debate for another day. And, moreover, these toddlers probably won’t be eligible for the 30 hour offer when they turn 3 anyway otherwise most of them wouldn’t have been eligible for the 2 year old offer in the first place (there are exceptions of course). It stands to reason therefore (doesn’t it?) that spaces will largely be set aside for 3 and 4 year olds instead. And what is more, perhaps even the 3 year olds who aren’t eligible for the 30 hours offer won’t be guaranteed getting their places either? Not even for the universal non means tested 15 hours. Only time will tell. And to think, the solution is actually fairly simple isn’t it? Change the eligibility criteria so that those families who struggle to fund childcare do get full funding and don’t need to find money for extras that we don’t want to charge anyway; those who don’t struggle maybe get some kind of subsidy but then again if couples can earn up to £199,998 per year then I doubt they could be considered to be struggling by any stretch of the imagination; then, then maybe all settings get paid exactly the same rate that they currently charge privately so nobody has to cut corners, cut jobs or cut loose.

“But come on, really, why all the anger against schools? What exactly is my problem with schools?”

Well, not only did they take the lion’s share of funded 2 year olds which robbed Childminders and daycare settings of a chance to fill a few places, even though they protesteth and protesteth very, very much, but they have for some time now been fishing for parents of funded  2-year-olds-on-the-cusp-of-turning-3-year-olds and telling them “hey, you can take your toddler out of your childminding setting and bring them here you know?” As if that isn’t bad enough, you know those 3 year olds already attending their local school nursery for the universal free 15 hours a week? You know, the ones their Childminder drops them off to and picks them up from every day?  Well, now they’re chasing their parents too and telling them “hey, you can take your toddler out of your childminding setting and bring them here for 30 hours per week for free from September you know? Get your name down now”. That’s why. Granted, parents usually already have their child’s name down for a place and often do long before they even start with their Childminder because it’s the thing to do. I think every parent does that because they’re told to. And besides, it gives them breathing space to consider their options at a later date. I get that. But how would schools feel if I stood at their nursery door or school gate and pulled up every parent with a small child and told them “hey, you can bring your kid to me instead you know?” and then go on to spell out the many, many, many advantages of using home-based childcare. Oooh, I could get t-shirts, balloons, pens, caps and leaflets printed and everything. Really go all-out. But it’s not the schools or the staff I’m angry with really. They’re just the punching bag because I can’t physically smack ministers in the face no matter how much I fantasise about it. They’re just doing as they’re told.

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Given all this, I do hope that more Childminders will whet their appetite for the 30 hour offer and not be put off by all the uncertainty. It is do-able. In the words of Paolo Nutini, we are brave individuals. We must be – we took such huge leaps of faith to take charge of our lives and careers and education to become our own bosses. We took ourselves right out of our comfort zones, took on challenges we never thought we could possibly achieve and are here today assessing how to move forward. And besides, why throw in the towel before we’ve even given it a go? Nothing ventured nothing gained and all that. We can amend contracts and we can terminate contracts. We can set our own notice periods and schedule our own contract reviews. The bottom line is we don’t have to do anything for anyone for any longer than we want to. A year from now we might even find ourselves wondering what the heck all the fuss was about. Another crappy policy, another election winner that never even got off the ground.

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Told you it was long and that it’s far from amusing but I just couldn’t hold it in any longer.

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