Childminders are an important element of the childcare sector in Scotland and offer a unique experience of childcare for children and families. They provide care and learning in the childminder’s own home, generally in small groups with no more than six children at one time. Often a childminder provides flexibility for parents or carers who need to manage work commitments, and may be used to provide wraparound care alongside nurseries or schools. Childminders are also consistently rated, through independent inspection by the Care Inspectorate, as providing high quality childcare across all quality criteria.
Childminders can play an important role in supporting the expansion of the entitlement to funded Early Learning and Childcare (ELC) to 1,140 hours a year for all three and four year olds, and eligible two year olds. If childminding services were to play a more prominent role in the ELC expansion, families could potentially have more choice about the type, location and hours of funded ELC they can access. Further, childminders will have an important role in future policy development, for example the extension of funded ELC to include younger children (for which provision will need to be different to that for three and four year olds) and the development of a new system of wraparound childcare.
Research aims and methods
There is a lack of evidence on provision by childminders and its impact on child, parent and carer, and family outcomes. This study aimed to develop the evidence base on the existing and potential impact of childminding services on child, parent and carer, and family outcomes, in the context of the ELC expansion. It has done this by assessing what aspects of childminding are believed to contribute to improving outcomes for children and their families in Scotland, according to childminders and parents using childminding services.
Qualitative in-depth interviews were conducted by telephone with 26 childminders and 26 parents using childminders in March and April 2021.
Participants were self-selecting which may mean that the sample of parents is skewed towards those that are especially satisfied with their childminder (given we asked them to tell to us about the benefits of childminding). The sample of childminders may also be skewed towards childminders who are currently happy in their role and keen to talk about the benefits. While this does not negatively affect the quality of the information gathered because our aim was to explore perceptions of good quality childminding and the potential positive impact of childminding, it should be kept in mind the sample will not be representative of all parents using childminders or all childminders.
A further limitation of this research project is that it only included parents who were already using childminders. Exploring the perceptions of parents who are not using childminders, and may never have considered using a childminder, would be valuable in identifying further ways to promote childminding and to test and develop promotional materials.
The views of childminders and parents are presented together, as there was little divergence between them. Where views are particularly from one group, this is highlighted in the text.
Perceptions of how childminding supports children
Parents and childminders agreed that the main features of childminding which supported children include:
- the homely setting where children feel comfortable and secure – which in turn supports their learning and development
- the small numbers of children in a childminding setting, which enables the childminder to provide more one-to-one, personalised care to each child and be more child-led and flexible, as well as providing a quieter and potentially less overwhelming environment than a nursery
- the mix of ages of children, which supports learning and development as younger and older children learn from each other
- the small numbers and continuity of care (children often stay with the same childminder for many years, from infancy to late primary school or beyond) lead to very close relationships between children and childminders, which was often perceived as providing children with more comfort, affection and nurturing than they might receive in a nursery
- the professional approach, expertise and qualifications of childminders, and the range of activities they provided – including participating in outdoor activities and in their local community – were valued by parents; they were also linked by participants to better learning and development outcomes than might typically be achieved through informal care e.g. from grandparents.
Perceptions of how childminding supports parents
Parents’ primary concern was the wellbeing of their children, so the benefits for children listed above were seen by parents as the main benefits of childminding.
In addition, there are a number of features of childminding which were perceived to be beneficial for parents and families:
- Flexibility (in terms of the hours offered, whether that was early starts, late finishes, weekend care, or ad hoc and last minute arrangements) was seen as a key benefit by parents and often drives their decision to use a childminder. Childminders’ ability to provide a flexible service gave parents peace of mind – there is room for last minute changes and if something comes up a childminder will usually be able to accommodate that.
- Parents also hugely valued the frequent contact and communication and chats at drop off/pick up time which built a close yet professional relationship with their childminder.
- The closeness and trust meant parents could open up about parenting problems and seek advice and support, and draw on their childminder’s professional knowledge and expertise. The expertise and knowledge of childminders was seen as a major benefit to children and parents; at the same time, the professional aspect of the relationship meant parents were comfortable being clear about their childcare requirements. Both of these aspects were seen as key benefits, particularly when compared to informal care from family members. Participants also spoke of making use of their childminder’s experience and knowledge to help them support their child through specific issues or stages.
- Parents also appreciated that childminders would often go ‘above and beyond’ what might be expected to provide families with an extra level of both practical and emotional support, both when unexpected problems arose on a day (e.g. driving a child home if the parent could not make the pick up) or more longer-term support when families were going through difficulties (e.g. illness or separation). As such, childminding was viewed not just as a form of childcare, but also as a form of family support.
Other practical benefits for parents include:
- the fact that childminders are usually very local to them
- and that siblings can be cared for together.
Limitations of childminding
There was a general consensus among participants that there were no significant downsides to childminding for children attending the setting, and those who went on to discuss potential limitations typically only did so after being prompted.
The main drawback discussed was that smaller groups may limit children’s social opportunities or the types of activities they can take part in. Other potential limitations discussed included:
- childminders having fewer resources than nurseries
- children being split up after leaving their childminder (for example, when they start school)
- and offering fewer trips if childminders have to provide care for children with different schedules, for example juggling a baby’s nap routine and nursery/school pick up and drop off.
There was also a perception that a childminding setting does not provide the same internal quality checks than a nursery does as a result of employing more people, who can act as a check on each other’s standards; with parents being reliant on one person for childcare.
Combining childminding with other forms of childcare
There are several reasons why parents chose to combine childminding with other forms of care; to cover all their work or study hours, to try to achieve value for money, and because they want their child to attend a nursery setting as well before starting school. Although there are practical reasons for combining care, parents and childminders also saw benefits of children experiencing and being comfortable in different settings. Participants did, however, identify some logistical challenges to overcome.
There was no consensus among childminders on whether funded hours had had an impact on patterns of care. However, there was a view among some that it is not financially viable to provide care for children for a short time before or after nursery, as they count towards the setting’s operating ratios. As a result, some childminders had stopped offering wraparound care or asked families to use them for full days only.
Perceptions of funded ELC
Some parents could not use their funded ELC entitlement with their childminder because their childminder did not deliver funded hours. Some participants did not have a problem with this whilst others would like to be able to use funded hours with their childminder.
Participants using their funded hours with a childminder were happy to be able to do so. They described benefits such as cost savings and being able to choose the childcare that best suited them and their child. Participants commented, however, that there is a lack of awareness and clarity amongst parents about funded ELC hours in relation to childminding.
There were mixed views amongst childminders about the impact of childminders providing funded hours on child outcomes. Some participants felt children would benefit from childminder requirements to meet the National Standard, whereas others felt they were already meeting the National Standard without being a partner provider.
Childminders currently delivering funded ELC described practical impacts on their service such as increased paperwork and training. Some commented that they are providing care for children they would not have otherwise because parents could not afford a childminder without funded hours. Childminders who are not delivering funded hours did not suggest they are struggling to fill places.
There were mixed views about the future impact of the full expansion to 1,140 hours on childminders, in terms of service provision and childminders’ finances.
The impact of the pandemic
While COVID-19 has had huge ramifications for childminders and families across Scotland, participants felt that a degree of normality had returned. Childminders experienced a range of very difficult challenges from March 2020 onwards, particularly because of the impact of restrictions in the first lockdown on their income.
Childminders responded to these challenges by finding different ways to keep in touch with children and, once open again, by making more use of the outdoors and adjusting activities to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus. They also thought of ways to support children through the disruption and stress they were experiencing. Parents said the pandemic made them even more grateful for their childminders. Some highlighted the major role their childminder played in supporting their family through very stressful times.
Overall, childminders’ thoughts on their plans after the pandemic were mixed – ranging from being keen to reduce their hours, take a break or possibly retire, to those that are happy to be running their service again with no intention of cutting back their hours. Childminders did not feel that the pandemic had impacted their ability to provide ELC funded hours, nor did it effect their decisions around whether to deliver ELC.
Raising awareness of childminding
Participants agreed that there was a lack of awareness of childminding as an option and of what childminders can offer – and therefore a need for greater promotion of it. There was a feeling that national and local government have focused more on nursery provision.
There was a perception that parents who did not use childminders thought they were “like babysitters” or that the children are “just sitting watching TV”. A lack of knowledge about the training, qualifications and experience of many childminders, and the regulations they must adhere to, was thought to be at the root of these misconceptions.
The perceived benefits of childminding should be the starting point for promotion. From the point of view of parents, the main selling points are the flexible hours, the one-to-one attention and the nurturing, home-from-home setting. Childminders were keen to promote the developmental aspects (including their training and qualifications, the child development plans they produce and the records they keep) and the regulations, risk assessments and quality assurance mechanisms that apply to them as well as to nurseries.
Awareness of childminding should be raised, and misconceptions about it addressed by the Scottish Government (on television and through social media), by local authorities (on their websites) and by health visitors (when meeting parents).
When asked what might encourage a greater uptake of childminding, parents tended to suggest more funding (including extending funded hours to younger children) and greater clarity about what funding/financial assistance is already available (including information on tax free childcare, tax credits for childcare and universal credit for childcare).
The need for more childminders to address the difficulty of finding a childminding place was raised by parents.