Ensuring there is enough staff to expand childcare is a challenge, says minister

Ensuring that nurseries and childminders have enough staff to expand free childcare for families is a “challenge”, an education minister has suggested.

Claire Coutinho acknowledged that “lots of childminders have left” the sector and she wants to make sure that childcare professionals “feel valued”.

The children, families and wellbeing minister told the Commons Education Select Committee that there is “work to do” to communicate to parents who sometimes do not understand that childminders get quality outcomes.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has promised up to 30 hours a week of free childcare for working parents in England with children as young as nine months.

Early years leaders have warned that parents who expect funded places to be available could be left disappointed unless proper infrastructure is put in place.

During the committee hearing, Flick Drummond, Conservative MP for Meon Valley, said they had heard how low salaries and a lack of career progression in the early years sector had led to recruitment and retention problems.

She asked: “What are you doing then to ensure that all the childcare settings have the workforce to develop expanded childcare entitlements?”

In response to the question, Ms Coutinho said: “It’s certainly a challenge.

“When I go and talk to different providers – and we’ve heard a bit about childminders – but also when you go and talk to nurseries, finding the right staff is certainly one of the first things that they all raise with me.

“I think actually we now have an opportunity in this expansion to look at this very carefully and make sure that we’re getting the right people coming into the sector.”

She told MPs that people should be made aware that it is a “highly valued sector” to work in, and early years career progression should be explored.

Claire Coutinho
Claire Coutinho acknowledged that ‘lots of childminders have left’ the sector (David Woolfall/UK Parliament)

“We’re working very closely with the sector in terms of staff and also providers and different parts of the system to try and make sure that we get this right because I think it is going to be absolutely fundamental,” Ms Coutinho added.

Ofsted figures, published in November last year, show that the number of childcare providers in England registered with the watchdog fell by 5,400 in the year to August 2022.

In his Budget speech, Mr Hunt announced that the Government would pilot incentive payments of £600 for childminders joining the profession.

Ms Drummond said on Tuesday that some childminders had “laughed” at the £600 incentive as they said it would not be enough to help them set up.

The minister said the grant will help with some upfront costs, but she added that she was interested in looking at how long it can take to register as a childminder as well as whether they can operate on non-domestic premises.

Ms Coutinho said: “I’m keen to look at what we can do to make that registration period quicker where possible.”

The offer of free childcare will be available to working parents of two-year-olds from April 2024, but initially it will be limited to 15 hours.

From September 2024, the 15-hour offer will be extended to children from nine months, and the full 30-hour offer to working parents of children under five will come in from September 2025.

Anna Firth, Conservative MP for Southend West, highlighted figures showing that many childminders have left in recent years.

She asked: “How are you working with local authorities to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of childcare across England?”

Ms Coutinho said: “We are going to talk to all local authorities about sufficiency in their areas, about deliverability, about all the different challenges that they face.

“You’re quite right to point out that lots of childminders have left the market. This is something that I’m personally very interested in because we know, and I’ve gone to shadow multiple childminders, that they get brilliant educational outcomes.

“I think the home-based care that they provide is really very special and you get quality outcomes, and also the flexibility that they can provide for parents can be extremely welcome as well. So there’s a number of things that we are trying to do to look at that, but this is an area that we deeply care about.

She added: “ I think some of the information that we’ve seen for parental surveys is that parents themselves sometimes don’t understand the quality of provision by childminders and their instinctive thought is to think of nurseries so I think there’s some work to do there to communicate to parents the brilliant work that childminders do.”