Childminder, Canary or Swan? by Sarah Hardwell

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I wonder if someone carried out a straw poll of people on any high street in any town or city in the country, how many people stopped would be able to accurately describe what a childminder does?

To be honest, I don’t think I would like to know the answer, I like to dwell on the positive things in life. An article last month in Nursery World (Number of childminders falls by a fifth, Katy Morton) was not an uplifting read and the problems caused by so many childminders, often the most experienced, leaving the profession are not difficult to miss. The article quoted Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance: “I always say that childminders are canaries in the coalmine when it comes to challenges facing the sector.” So what does a childminder do, and why are we the canaries of the Early Years?

Recently, a friend kindly remarked how calm I looked whilst caring for other people’s children, alongside my own, and still managing to shepherd them to school on time, then home to be given a cooked meal.

My response was to liken what I do to being a swan – there’s a lot going on below the surface. Parents still often express surprise that childminders are subject to the same legal requirements and inspections as nurseries and schools. I am proud to deliver a high-quality Early Years provision and I really enjoy working withchildren to help them to develop the skills and characteristics that they need to make their next steps in life successful ones. This is at the heart of what a childminder does, so why isn’t this more widely recognised and celebrated?

Yet, the Early Years education element is not all the childminders do and it is perhaps all the add-ons that you must consider when running your provision by yourself where the challenges are most likely to arise. Firstly, it’s my own business, so I need to advertise to fill the places in order to earn a living, then organise contracts, bills and funding applications for the families of the children that I care for.

Accounting and the annual tax return are not usually concerns for most working in nurseries or schools. Then there’s admin surrounding caring safely for the children: food hygiene standards; healthy meal planning (with allergies accounted for); keeping up to date with safeguarding guidelines and training; risk assessments; health care plans. You are solely responsible for every decision, making sure that every legal requirement is properly met and dealing with whatever issue crops up (which often involves mess and extra cleaning, another job that only you can do!). All this whilst trying not to let your job take over your home or make your family feel ill at ease in their own home. It is not a surprise to me that childminders feel underappreciated, particularly when offered such a paltry hourly rate for funded children whilst being told that childcare costs are too high for ‘hardworking families’. It is not unusual to hear of a childminder taking a different job, with all the security of sick pay, pension contributions and colleagues to share their work with.

Clearly, becoming a childminder is not an easy decision to make and it can sometimes seem like a difficult job to stick with. The recent figures give stark light to this. But I like to see the positive in life and, to my mind, it’s vital that childminders see what a crucial and fantastic profession that they work in. I started off as a history teacher in secondary schools, a job I really enjoyed, but it became apparent to me that there were children in my classroom who were really not gaining much by being made to write an essay on the causes of the English Civil War. I would rather they spent their time building stronger communication skills, personal resilience or the other building blocks needed to make life a success,before being able to write in coherent paragraphs. I then moved to working in a primary school, where I believed from my perspective as a secondary school teacher there would be time and space to build a person, not just teach academic subjects. This is true to a greater extent than was the case in my history classroom, but there was still an avalanche of National Curriculum content to get through every year and I again began to feel that my hands were tied more than I would like when considering what was best for the individuals in front of me.

Then, another pregnancy and another career change and I set up as a childminder. First, I loved the freedom of deciding how to do things and not needing to meet the expectations of a headteacher or ticking off all the curriculum’s requirements. For the first time I could really look at a child and think about what they needed and what they would get the most out of. A childminder can only care for three children under the age of five, this gives far more time for individual care than in any other place I’ve ever worked. As I developed my CPD in early childhood I opened a whole new world. How had I managed to do a teaching degree without learning about how a child grows and develops? How had I managed to be a mother without knowing about what I could have been doing for my child? (I am pleased to report that my oldest child seems to have turned out ok despite going through his own early years before his mother developed a passion for all things early childhood!) Now, I cannot imagine having another career change and feel so privileged to work in a profession where I feel that I can genuinely make a difference in helping families to set their children onto a happy and successful course through life.

Childminders should feel immense pride in what they do and I sincerely hope that factors will come together so that the next headline is that childminders have some of the best recruitment retention levels of any profession, but that is an uphill struggle and unless a great deal changes we may continue to be canary coloured swans.

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