BLOG | ELC Implementation: Urgent change in approach required to address cost to childminding workforce

BLOG | ELC Implementation: Urgent change in approach required to address cost to childminding workforce
Latest BLOG from Graeme McAlister, Chief Executive of SCMA, exploring ELC implementation, and the urgent change in approach that is required to address cost to childminding workforce.

Within the last four weeks I have twice given oral evidence, on behalf of SCMA, to the Scottish Parliament on the subject of ELC expansion – firstly to the Education, Children and Young People Committee on the implementation of ‘1140 by 2020’ and then earlier this week to the Finance and Public Administration Committee on the cost of implementing ELC expansion. 

A central role of SCMA is to provide a voice for professional childminding. This helps influence the development and implementation of policy and standards to ensure they are informed by the experiences of professional childminders.  SCMA was the only organisation representing childminding at these sessions - and our invitations to present oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament are, in influencing terms, as high as things can get politically in Scotland.  

SCMA is supportive of ELC policy and, in particular, the intent to close the attainment gap and to provide free/funded childcare to parents (particularly those on low incomes). However, we have major concerns about how the expansion of ELC has been implemented nationally and locally and the devastating effect this has had on the childminding workforce in Scotland. The workforce has declined by 26% (1457 childminders) during the last five years during the implementation of ‘1140 by 2020’. This cannot be sustained.  Funded ELC was supposed to increase choice for parents, its implementation has had the opposite effect and decreased choice with shortages of childminders being reported around the country.

So what exactly is the problem? 
There have been several major weaknesses or failings in policy implementation during ELC expansion:

  1. the national drive to recruit additional staff into nurseries to support ELC expansion and the destabilising effect this had on the sector;
  2. inequitable and inconsistent local implementation of national ELC policy.  This includes the continued prioritisation of local authority nursery provision, insufficient inclusion of childminders in funded ELC delivery and at levels which do not support their business sustainability, and inequitable promotion of all childcare options available to parents.  While some local authorities have been inclusive and supportive, too many have not. ‘Provider Neutrality’ is not working and needs to be replaced or enforced;
  3. a significant increase in bureaucracy and paperwork including duplicative quality assurance under ELC expansion. This has affected childminders, as predominantly sole workers, disproportionately and is now the main reason that childminders have left or are planning to leave the profession.  As a professional membership organisation, SCMA is supportive of quality assurance, but we believe this must be proportionate, lighter touch and joined-up – sadly in too many cases it is none of these;
  4. the relatively new requirement for practitioner qualifications is set against a backdrop of a long-standing, high-quality and older workforce

SCMA has been commissioned by the Scottish Government to undertake annual independent audits of local authorities’ progress in including childminders in ELC delivery. The problems I’ve outlined here are, sadly, not new.  They have been reported annually, and repeatedly, with insufficient response by either the Scottish Government or the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) - who are aware of the issues. 

Local Authority Conflict of Interest 
At the heart of this, local authorities have had a conflict of interest during ELC expansion.  On one hand, they have had a responsibility for developing and overseeing local expansion plans in their areas; and on the other, they are a direct service provider through their own local authority nurseries. Some have managed this conflict of interests well, some much less so.

We are also pragmatic and recognise that difficulties can arise when a national policy is dependent on local implementation, but there is an urgent need for greater responsibility to be taken - and for a step change in action from the Scottish Government and COSLA to support childminders.

Although sustainable rates are important, we also need to look beyond these. We must also ensure that the number of funded hours that childminders receive from their local authority are of a high enough level to support their business sustainability - so that childminders don’t get just receive fragments after the bulk of hours have been taken for a local authority nursery.

While presenting evidence to these two Scottish Parliamentary Committees I left them both with the same parting thought.  While we have presented much data to them, and will continue to gather more evidence, there is one particular statistic of note - our ELC Audit 2021 found that only four out of 32 local authorities in Scotland have undertaken impact assessments of their ELC expansion plans on childminders. That tells us all we need to know - that the main focus has been local authority nursery expansion. This must change.

SCMA Leading Affirmative Action 
In our ELC Audit 2019, SCMA reported that in the previous five-year period, the childminding workforce had declined by 14.5%. We recommended the need for a national recruitment campaign to the Scottish Government. That recommendation was not accepted. Then in our ELC Audit 2021 we reported that in the previous five-year period the childminding workforce had declined by 26% - so this is an accelerating trend.  

To many childminders it may be unclear what the tolerance threshold is before there is official recognition of the need to act and to act decisively – a 40%, 50%, 60% or 70% reduction? In the meantime, SCMA has demonstrated affirmative action, by establishing and leading the Scottish Rural Childminding Partnership.  This project aims to recruit 100 childminders in remote and rural areas where the recruitment challenges are more pronounced and childminders are urgently needed. However positive, this is just a small, first step which needs scaled up nationally in parallel to urgent action to reduce bureaucracy and duplicative quality assurance. 

Speaking Truth to Power 
As an organisation, SCMA remains committed to representing the needs and experiences of childminders in Scotland and the families they support. We will continue to do this constructively, using evidence to challenge wrongs. As a Third Sector organisation we also recognise the incredibly important role that the Third Sector plays in providing scrutiny and holding the statutory sector to account (sometimes referred to as “speaking truth to power”). We are part-funded by the Scottish Government and it could be easier not to provide challenge, but it is our responsibility to do so.

Returning to our evidence to the Scottish Parliament, it was very encouraging that at a time when childminding has, for many years, been deprioritised, the Finance and Public Administration Committee framed much of the oral evidence session around SCMA’s written submission. Committee members from across the political parties were left in no doubt as to the cost that ELC expansion has had on the childminding workforce. 

Both Committees will produce a report following these evidence sessions and SCMA awaits these with interest. We will, of course, update our members on the findings in due course.  

WATCH | Graeme delivering oral evidence at the Finance and Public Administration Committee at the Scottish Parliament (21 June 2022). Please note: the session begins at 10.53 on the timer.