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A few short months into his time as the Minister for Childcare in a single party government, Sam Gyimah tells Tommy Leighton that this is a Golden Age for childcare and looks forward to an exciting period for the sector.
How does the mindset of a Minister change from leading a department in a coalition to having full ownership of policy?
It is interesting. What I found deeply frustrating about Coalition wasn’t the fact that we had to work with another party, but it was more the fact that I found our coalition partners often tried to suggest that where there were matters of social justice, it was their idea and when there were difficulties or issues that were unpleasant it was the Conservatives' idea.
Actually, as Conservatives, we care very much about social justice, about fairness and in the context of childcare, we care about high quality childcare as much as they do. Having to deal with that was deeply frustrating, so there is a sense of liberation post coalition.
You sit in a meeting and agree a policy and all the good bits would be down to someone else and all the difficult bits were down to you. Of course you expect the opposition to question you, but we now have a real opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to working parents by dealing with the issues that they find challenging around childcare – you know, childcare is important because it affects the cost of living for a lot of people and for mothers it affects their decision whether or not they can go back into work, but we also know that for the children, high quality childcare can make a positive impact on their life chances. What we really do have an opportunity to do is to demonstrate that this is important and that we can make a difference to parents’ lives.
How has it changed government policy on childcare – what are the key differences we should note that weren’t part of Coalition policy?
For the first time, we had a Childcare Bill in the Queen’s Speech – that has never happened before. One of the first pieces of legislation that this government has passed is on childcare and that’s for 30 hours of free childcare for parents of 3 and 4 year olds, so not only do we have the manifesto commitment, but we made it a top priority to be delivered speedily through the legislating process and that underscores our commitment to this sector.
In the Autumn statement, the Chancellor went as far as coming out with a down-payment for that policy, so we are acting on a key manifesto pledge and that’s different. This is no longer the Cinderella area of government.
Westminster politics can seem far removed from the reality of everyday life sometimes. Outside of formal consultations, what is the best way for childcare professionals to make sure their voices are heard by your department?
I hear what you say about Westminster politics, but I’m a parent, I’ve got a 16-month old and so my wife and I are having to juggle childcare issues like a lot of other parents up and down the country – what do you do if your child is ill? Who picks them up? So, yes Westminster politics can appear far removed but there are a lot of us who work in Westminster politics who experience the day-to-day challenges around childcare in the same way.
As far as childcare professionals are concerned, I think consultations are an important way to gauge the opinions of the sector before any changes are made. That’s how we formally listen to the sector, but what we are going to be doing in the course of this parliament is to find new ways to engage with the sector and with parents outside of formal consultations. We’ll be using ‘new’ techniques like social media, you’ll be seeing a lot of that from us during the course of this parliament. We know not everybody responds to consultations; they have certain time periods and you have got to respond in a certain way, so we are looking at finding new ways.
The new Childcare Bill seems very focused on parents’ entitlements, but gives little detail about how these will work in practice. There are concerns about how providers will find the extra space, staff, training etc necessary to offer the hours. In addition to the issue of funding, will you consult with the industry on the practicalities of implementing this policy?
The first thing to be clear about is that we’re doubling the free entitlement from 15 to 30 hours, but that is not the same as doubling the demand for childcare. There are a lot of parents of 3 and 4 year olds who are already taking more than 15 hours of childcare, that providers are already delivering. What will happen here is that the government will be subsidising their childcare costs, so the sector can, I believe, rise to the challenge in terms of providing the childcare and a lot of the spaces already exist.
In terms of how the workings of the Childcare Bill are concerned, as it goes through parliament we’ll be fleshing out the detail. A lot of the implementation aspects will be discussed by a cross-government Childcare Implementation Taskforce*, which I co-chair, and what we’re trying to do is make sure that we bring all of the different departments across government around the same table. So local government, because of course Local Authorities are very important to the delivery; the Treasury, because obviously we need to fund this; the Department for Work and Pensions and others will come together so we have a policy that is clearly implemented in a way that works for the sector.
In addition to that, we launched a call for evidence from the sector, about the cost of providing childcare. That finished in August and what we’ve got is the sector to come up with their ideas of how much it costs them to deliver the free entitlement so that feeds into our thinking around the funding and how to implement it. That is how we’re listening to the sector.
This is a funding review that was promised during the election campaign – we’ll be publishing the results of that funding review in the Autumn and that will feed into the spending review that the Chancellor will come out with, also in the Autumn.
Of course in terms of timing, we want early implementers to come forward in 2016 before we fully implement this in 2017, so we’ve got time for the sector to get itself ready, which is important.
Childminder Agencies (CA) were introduced by your predecessor and caused much confusion and consternation. Does it feel to you like the model is working? Are you confident that agencies will be able to make sufficient money to be commercially viable in the long term?
I think Childminder Agencies are a welcome innovation. They are independent of government, but I can see [how they can] get really involved in the delivery of the 30 hours – for example, school nurseries often offer the 15 hours in term time and there’s no reason why a Childminder Agency can’t partner with a school to work to deliver the second 15 hours. It’s not for me to prescribe how independent organisations run their business, but I think this is a good piece of innovation in the sector that can have a positive role in delivering quality childcare to parents.
The important thing is, childminders don’t have to join an agency if they don’t want to – it’s voluntary.
CAs were meant to increase the numbers of childminders. It’s early days of course, but Ofsted figures show another drop in the numbers of childminders - do you think Childminder Agencies will do anything to help numbers increase?
There are actually more childcare places offered by childminders. It’s gone up from 266,100 in 2011 to 277,500, so there has been an uptick in terms of the number of children being looked after. That is good news.
I think for all childcare providers, this is a Golden Age of childcare, in the sense that there are more women who work than ever before, there are more parents who are looking for childcare solutions and you’ve got a government that is really committed to investing in childcare. We invested £5 billion across the last parliament, that is obviously going to be going up in this parliament. We are also going to be implementing tax-free childcare, which was legislated for in the last parliament. I think the real driver of the increase in childminder numbers will be the fact that there is a lot of opportunity now for high quality childcare.
We all know that when it comes to childcare no two [sets of] parents want the same solution. There are some parents who want their children to be looked after in the domestic setting, some prefer them to be close to work because of proximity. I want to see all of the different parts of the sector flourish and I think with the government’s commitment to the sector and with parental demand, this is a good time to be a childminder.
They [The figures} also show a failure in the attempt to narrow the attainment levels between poor and better off children – obviously that is something that concerns you, but what else can be done?
Obviously that is in the educational aspect of childcare – it is very important and close to my heart. I believe that if you want children to go on and succeed in school, the early years are when you start and that means high quality childcare, which we know makes a huge difference, in particular for the less well off.
That is why we introduced the 3-year old entitlement in the last parliament, which we are carrying forward in this parliament, so that children from the most disadvantaged households begin to get that education sooner and do not fall behind. We also introduced and extended the pupil premium, which is targeted at disadvantaged children, into the early years so that those children begin to get that extra help that they might need from the age of 3.
So with these things, and also making sure the quality of the staff coming into the childcare sector is of the right standard, we are laying the foundations to narrow that gap further.
You talked recently about the “moral mission” of the childcare sector – what type of response did you get to that from the childminding profession and do you feel there is a will to take a “fresh look” at the issues?
The response I got from a lot of childminders was actually ‘this is what we’re doing already’. They do consider that looking after children is a vocation, not just something you do to pay your bills, and that there is something rather special and unique about it. So, in a sense I was echoing what a lot of chilminders in their own way see themselves as doing. I think we’ve got to keep reminding ourselves that especially as more and more parents look for childcare solutions, that the opportunity to help a child develop is one that is incredibly unique and there is a moral dimension to that.
How does the continuing drop-off in childminder numbers sit with government plans to increase the number of funded hours available to parents? Won’t a drop in places make 30 hours more difficult to achieve in some areas of the country?
I have talked about parental demand and the investment that is going into childcare from the government, which is a good backdrop for people thinking about becoming a childminder [to decide] this is a good time to do it. But also we are taking some practical steps. We are reducing some of the bureaucracy, so that for instance, you can operate 50% of your time as a childminder away from your domestic premises. That will bring flexibility and allow childminders to partner with a number of different organisations, including schools, to deliver their service. We are really helping childminders set up their businesses – they are now eligible for early education funding – 32,000 are currently able to access it.
All of these things are providing a positive environment for people who want to be childminders to do so successfully.
How do you view the role of Local Authorities in supporting the childminding community? Is funding at a sufficient level to allow them to continue this role?
As part of the funding review that we promised, we also committed to increasing the average hourly rate for providers to 3 and 4 year olds. That obviously applies to childminders. What local authorities are there to assure as much as possible, is that there are enough childcare places – that is a statutory duty for them, they have a role in shaping their local market and I believe childminders are very keen to be part of that.
What is your view on nanny regulation? Could CAs be used to register and regulate nannies?
Many nannies register under the voluntary part of our general childcare register and [if] nannies want to be regulated more, I’ll look at their submissions. The key to me is that parents should be able to choose the childcarer that works best for them. We should be giving parents the freedom to organise care in their own homes.
What is top of your wish list for your time as Childcare Minister, before you move on to another post?
Well, I’ve enjoyed my time. When the election came, I hadn’t got my feet under the table [in this post] and for me it’s been great to come back into the department, to a job that I had started doing and therefore had a feel for the issues. But also I became a full time department for education minister with responsibility for childcare, so I’m immensely excited by the opportunity.
To many parents, childcare is the issue, not an issue, and what I would like to do is to get to the place where it ceases to be the issue – so that parents who need childcare can have access to childcare that is affordable for them, high quality and gives them peace of mind when they leave their children. That’s what I want to achieve.
For childminders, I want to see a better service. Given all the investment that is going into childcare, I want to see childminders being a big part of this 30 hours, working with parents and other providers to deliver what parents need. I think childminders are an extremely important part of that.
* The Childcare Implementation Taskforce
The Government has established a Childcare Implementation Taskforce, co-chaired by Sam Gyimah and Priti Patel. The taskforce has cross- Government representation including the Department for Education, the Department of Work and Pensions, HM Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Cabinet Office.
The Taskforce will work to drive forward the delivery of key government policies including: the doubling of free childcare for working parents of 3 and 4 year olds; the delivery of Tax-Free Childcare to support parents back into work; and further improvements in the supply of childcare.
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