Navigating the Crossroads of Regulation and Flexibility: Charting the Future of Childminding in Ireland

Bernadette Orbinski Burke, Chief Executive, Childminding Ireland

With childminding in Ireland on the brink of regulation for the first time in the history of the State, the future of childminding stands at a critical juncture. As the Government prepares to introduce the Draft Childminding Regulations 2024, childminders and policymakers alike face the challenge of balancing regulatory oversight with the preservation of the unique individuality that defines childminding in Ireland.

Current Child Care Act 1991 (Early Years Services) Draft Childminding Regulations 2024 have been circulated and a 12-week public consultation is underway. At the time of writing, the Government are planning to open a childminding register with Tusla – The Child and Family Agency (Tusla) in autumn 2024. It is proposed that there will be a transitional period during which childminders may join the register, become subject to childminding regulations and be in a position to offer access to the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) to parents using their childminding setting. At the end of the transitional period, it will become mandatory for all childminders to be registered.

The crossroads facing childminding now depends on the decisions that will be made. Will the Government choose the gravitational pull towards the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, or will they choose to acknowledge childminding as a valuable asset whose individuality need to be protected in order to survive? Will childminders decide to adapt to a new reality of regulation?

Childminding is defined in the National Action Plan for Childminding (2021–2028) (DCEDIY, 2021)  as ‘to mean paid, non-relative care of children aged from birth to 14 (including both early learning and care and school-age childcare) in which children are cared for singlehandedly within the childminder’s family setting’ (p.22).

Childminding has historically been virtually unregulated due to an exemption in the Child Care Act 1991 and to Section 22 of the Childcare Support Act 2018 which came into force in February 2019. As a result of the combined legislation, a childminder is only required to register with Tusla on the 4th minded pre-school child or on the 7th child of any age. In fact, unless the childminder is minding 4 pre-schoolers or more or 7 children of any age at one time, there is currently no pathway for childminders to register with Tusla. There are currently 69 Tusla registered childminders in the country. The total number of childminders in the country is unknown.

In this regulatory vacuum, some childminders have chosen to self-regulate and, under the 2002 National Childminding Initiative, became voluntarily notified to their local City and County Childcare Committees, however this had little or no oversight other than allowing childminders to apply for a biennial Childminding Development Grant. Childminders also joined Childminding Ireland – the National Association of Childminders, some as full members and some as childminding contacts. The membership criteria of Childminding Ireland have for over 40 years represented quality assurance available for childminders to demonstrate to parents. Childminding Ireland’s current membership criteria includes:

  • Garda Vetting
  • Paediatric first aid
  • Tusla Child Safeguarding online course
  • Insurance for childminding
  • Signing up to a code of ethics and
  • Safety statement

At the time of writing, Childminding Ireland has over 9,500 childminding contacts (including members and parents using childminding settings). The reality is that many thousands of childminders are not currently in contact with any support organisation and may be unaware of the forthcoming regulation of childminders.

In 2016, Childminding Ireland was asked to Chair a Working Group on Reforms and Supports for the Childminding Sector, which reported in 2018. The Department for Children, Equality, Diversity, Integration, and Youth (DCEDIY) in 2021 published the Action Plan that was informed by the 2018 Working Group Report.

The overall objective of the Action Plan is: ‘to improve access to high quality and affordable early learning and care and school-age childcare through childminding.’ (DCEDIY, 2021, p.40)

The Action Plan outlines a phased approach to improving accessibility and quality of childminding services.

The Draft Regulations signal a significant shift towards formal regulation and oversight of childminding in Ireland.

The Draft Regulations were distributed on 8th February and there is a 12-week public consultation process underway. The consultation process aim is to capture stakeholder and public feedback on the Draft Regulations.

The Draft Regulations propose a comprehensive framework for childminding, encompassing registration requirements, safety protocols, child-to-adult ratios, mandatory training, and ongoing inspection mechanisms. While the aim is to enhance child safety and quality standards, there is emerging concern among childminders that overly prescriptive regulations could undermine the flexibility and spontaneity that characterise childminding services.

Childminding Ireland, as the national body for childminding, are encouraging childminders to fully engage with the consultation process and ensure that their perspective is heard and recorded. In order to properly inform its submission, Childminding Ireland is also running its own consultation with childminders and parents using childminding services.

To date, the many childminders that have contacted Childminding Ireland have expressed high levels of anxiety and stress. Although it has been known for some time that regulation was coming to childminding, the Draft Regulations have been confidential and, until the public consultation, were not shared with childminders at large. The fact that the Draft Regulations are seen as familiar by many as ‘Early Years Regulations’[i], has caused a significant amount of concern among childminders contacting Childminding Ireland. It is perceived that there is a real danger of a ‘one-size-fits all’ incremental approach that could stifle childminding and lead to an exodus of childminders from the sector.

The majority of childminders currently canvassed would agree that appropriate and proportionate regulation is important for child safeguarding and also to ensure that families can benefit from the National Childcare Scheme (NCS). The critical balance will be between appropriate, proportionate regulatory measures and – the cost to childminding.

These Draft Regulations have the potential to significantly impact the operations of childminders and the broader childcare landscape in Ireland. While they aim to enhance child safety and quality standards, there is concern among childminders that overly prescriptive regulations would undermine their ability to be child led in their daily work, responding to the children’s interests and spontaneous ideas for play.

It is important to acknowledge the need for childminding regulation to address potential safety concerns. Anyone working with children should be Garda vetted, work to child safeguarding protocols and meet appropriate quality standards. All children should have access to quality childcare.

Some stakeholders may call for strict regulation of childminding in order to ensure consistent quality and safety standards across all childcare settings. This is a logical theoretical position, however, it does not acknowledge the fact that childcare models can vary significantly. Effective regulation will need to acknowledge those differences. One of the many difficulties in deciding what regulations should cover is that different models of childcare have unique features that result in unique benefits for children.

If Tusla registered, childminders could apply to provide the NCS to families using their childminding settings. The NCS provides financial support to help families with their childcare costs and is a valuable and much needed subsidy for many parents using childcare. The NCS consists of a universal element of €1.40 per hour (maximum 45hrs) per week. There is also a means tested element to the subsidy that is calculated on a family’s individual circumstances.

The introduction of regulations may have both positive and negative potential implications for families using childminding settings. On one hand, increased oversight and standardised quality standards may provide reassurance to parents regarding the safety and quality of childcare. On the other hand, overly stringent regulations may limit options for flexible childcare arrangements, particularly for families with non-traditional working schedules.

According to the CSO Census 2022, nearly one-third of Irish children under the age of 15 (331,783) rely on childcare services, with the majority (56%) receiving care in a home setting. Currently, throughout the whole country, 53,085 children are in the care of childminders, benefitting from personalised attention and the nurturing environment of a family home.

It is important to highlight what is potentially at risk if the regulation of childminding does prove to be disproportionate and/or inappropriate. The benefits to children of being minded by childminders include:

  • Childminding allows a child’s individuality to flourish (Ang et al., 2016; Freeman & Karlsson, 2012), thanks to the one-to-one attention and care each child receives (Garrick et al., 2010); Ahnert et al., 2006).
  • Children develop optimally in the secure relationship and secondary attachment bonding with their childminders (Bowlby, 2007).
  • Children thrive in childminding settings helped by smaller group sizes, which is an acknowledged marker of quality in childcare (Laevers et al, 2016; Clarke-Stewart et al, 2022).
  • Toddlers and babies in particular flourish in the low stress environment at the childminders (Dalli et al., 2011).
  • Childminding has been shown to lead to better outcomes for children in terms of well-being, language, and socio-emotional development (Otero, 2015; Melhuish et al., 2017; Russell et al., 2016).
  • Children enjoy a home from home environment (DCYA, 2017; Shannon et al., 2014) as provided by childminders.
  • Children benefit from the security provided by the continuity of care possible with childminders from babyhood to teenage years (Sure Start 2004; Tonyan, 2017).
  • Children can be taken out and about and benefit from being part of the local community and experiencing the world in a real way (Bromer, 2011; Garrity et al., 2017).
  • There are fewer instances of sickness amongst children minded by childminders when compared with children in large group childcare (McGinnity et al., 2013).
  • Childminding is also valued as an appropriate setting for children with additional needs, who can receive the extra care and attention they need with a childminder (Coplan et al., 2010).
  • Since childminding services are so varied, parents can choose childminders that match their own parenting style, and the needs of their family (Fauth, 2013).
  • The parents and the childminder can agree the details of the childcare required, including shift work patterns, such as overnight or at weekends, allowing for flexibility (Brooker, 2016).

It must be remembered that until now many childminders have been specifically excluded from regulation, and have not, as is often suggested, been avoiding it. In this regulatory vacuum the uncomfortable truth is that childminding is working.

Parents have high levels of satisfaction with their childminders and complaints are rare. In the Working Group on Reforms and Supports for the Childminding Sector – Parental Survey (The Working Group on Reforms and Supports for the Childminding Sector, 2018), of the 1,208 parents who responded to the question ‘How satisfied are you with your childminder?’, 93% answered ‘satisfied (21.4%)’ or ‘very satisfied (71.8%).’

Insurance incidents in childminding are extremely low with only one claim in the last 5 years, and this claim resulted in a low-level payment.

In the childcare sector, childminders have publicly raised the least dissatisfaction with working terms and conditions or of an administrative burden.

This is not to say that everything is perfect in the childminding world, but the automatic assumption of many that childminding needs to ‘raise its quality standards’, are part of an ‘informal economy’, that children are somehow ‘disadvantaged by attending a childminding setting’ are unfair and ill-informed to say the least.

Childminders are the heartbeat of flexible childcare. Unlike many other childcare facilities, childminders and parents can negotiate flexible arrangements to suit diverse working schedules. This flexibility is particularly appreciated by those needing childcare due to working outside the standard working week, working shift patterns, weekend or nighttime working, and part-time workers. The importance of flexibility cannot be overstated for families, even for those working regular hours, as life can be unpredictable for any family.

At Childminding Ireland, we often hear of the importance of childminding in rural areas,  especially in the West of Ireland where there are few alternative forms of childcare available. In order to support young families living in rural areas, it is essential that flexible childcare continues to be available.

Childminders are often the setting of choice for parents whose children have additional needs. In Childminding Ireland’s Childminding in Ireland Survey 2022, we saw that 42%of respondents had been or were at the time of the survey minding children with additional needs.

It is important that the regulation of childminders is a success. It is also necessary to explore the risk of rejection of the Draft Regulations by childminders. Numerous childminders are reporting that if they can’t see the Draft Regulations working for their childminding settings, they will stop working as childminders and seek alternative employment as necessary. A number of childminders have already been in touch with Childminding Ireland to say that they have stopped childminding due to the uncertainty of the future. This is very distressing for the childminder, children and families involved as close bonds have developed over time.

It also leads to the question what happens if significant numbers of childminders cannot see themselves in the Draft Regulations? Whilst it has been acknowledged that a certain proportion of a workforce may be lost when regulation is introduced or modified, if the numbers become significant it will lead to additional pressures for childcare places on other childcare providers.

Potential loss of childminding places may lead to parents finding themselves struggling to find alternative childcare depending on local availability.

It is vitally important that childminders are fully engaged in order to meet the primary objective to ‘Improve access to high quality and affordable early learning and care and school-age childcare through childminding’ (DCEDIY, 2021, p.40).

As Ireland steers towards a regulated childminding sector, it is essential to strike a balance between oversight and adaptability. While the Draft Regulations are intended to assure child safety, access to quality childcare and parental subsidies, they must not unduly stifle flexibility or disenfranchise small-scale providers.

The public consultation is still underway, and Childminding Ireland urge stakeholders to engage as fully as possible so that a meaningful picture can emerge of the views of the most important stakeholders, childminders and parents using childminding settings for their childcare needs.

Childminders and policymakers alike face the challenge of balancing regulation with the preservation of the unique individuality that defines childminding in Ireland. It now becomes about identifying specific issues, and engaging childminders, parents, and policymakers to identify solutions. The road ahead demands a delicate navigation, one that assures child safeguarding, quality childcare and parental access to the NCS while also retaining childminders and preserving the benefits of childminding and the unique fabric of Irish childminding.

This article was included in the Barnardos Magazine focussed on childminding. You can read other articles in the magazine here.

[i] S.I. No. 221/2016 – Child Care Act 1991 (Early Years Services) Regulations 2016. (