A new report warns that the childminding industry is at risk due to lack of support and a rapidly declining workforce.
According to the Scottish Childminding Association's (SCMA) 2023 Early Learning and Childcare Audit, 347 childminding businesses closed last year, equalling a loss of 2,047 childcare spaces for families.
Since 2016, Scotland's childminding workforce has declined by 41.2%, with the loss of 2,273 childminding businesses and 13,411 childcare spaces for families.
In low-population areas, council-run nurseries and childcare settings aren't always available.
And many of these settings only cater to children within a limited age group, often three and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds.
As an alternative, childminders offer flexible hours and are able to care for children from birth to age 12, and up to 16 in the case of children with additional support needs.
SCMA leaders say the overall rate of decline is unsustainable, but ongoing recruitment campaigns in underserved areas and government backing provide a glimmer of hope.
ELC expansion causing unexpected problems
Beginning in 2021, all three, four and eligible two-year-olds in Scotland are entitled to 1,140 hours of funded Early Learning and Childcare (ELC).
This is up from 600 hours previously.
However, the new SCMA report suggests that this extension is having a knock-on effect of pushing independent childminders out of business.
According to the report, contributing factors include local authorities prioritising hiring nursery staff, high barriers to entry for new childminders, and under-use of childminders qualified to provide funded care.
The SCMA found that one-quarter of childminders are approved by their local authority to provide funded care to eligible two-year-olds. In practice, only one in 25 is actually delivering funded ELC to that age group.
Glimmer of hope in recent recruitment
The SCMA has conducted targeted recruitment drives in recent years and the new report hints at early successes.
Last year, the SCMA recruited 44 new childminders directly through its recruitment and training pilot.
This year, the recruitment scheme began targeting new urban areas in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, alongside continued efforts in the Highlands and western Scotland.
In addition to information and advice for starting a childminding business, the SCMA is offering fully-funded support for new childminders in these areas.
Call for urgent action
Graeme McAlister, SCMA chief executive, hopes the new report serves as a call to action for communities that rely on childminders.
“These losses cannot be sustained and require major action.
"However, we are starting to see some small signs of change, in response to our activity, which give cautious grounds for optimism and provide a platform for recovery."
He also pointed to recent statements from the Scottish Government which have placed targets for recruiting 100 childminders and implementing the ELC expansion more equitably.
"It does also feel like we are in a different place politically to 12 months ago, during which time the Scottish Government has recognised the gravity of the situation and made substantive commitments within its recent Programme for Government on childminder retention and recruitment, but these commitments now need to be delivered upon at scale and pace”.
A Scottish Government spokesman said that the government supports efforts to reverse the decline in the sector.
“As announced in the 2023 Programme for Government, we will continue to build on the existing childminder recruitment pilots as part of our efforts to grow the workforce by 1,000 by 2026-27.
"We will also implement measures to address retention issues within the sector – this includes trialling a mentoring scheme and funded time off the floor to allow childminders to plan and undertake professional learning.
“We are also supporting local authorities and providers to ensure that local ELC offers meet the needs of families.
“The Scottish Government is also working closely with the SCMA more widely to understand what more can be done to build a thriving childminding sector that recognises the crucial role they provide in ELC.”