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Shephard angers childminders

Policy-makers were accused of neglecting the nation's 93,000 childminders at a National Children's Bureau conference in London this week.

Gill Haynes, chief executive of the National Childminding Association, castigated the Government for its "policy vacuum" and admonished the Audit Commission for excluding childminding from its "Counting to Five" report on under-fives' education which was published this month.

"Childminders want the emphasis to be on quality and not the setting through which it is delivered. They want Government and policy-makers to understand that you cannot separate education from care. They want our policy-makers to get real," she said.

She told the 350 delegates that many parents preferred their four-year-olds to be with just one other child in a childminder's home than in a reception class with 30 others.

Pat Dench, assistant chief executive officer for the Pre-school Learning Alliance, also made some hard-hitting comments on the delicate issue of qualified teacher status.

She said: "There is still a wide divide between those who insist on Qualified Teacher Status for all in charge of nursery education and those of us who know from experience and research that there is a wealth of competence among those who have other qualifications.

She said that the alliance would be happy for routes to be set up to enable their staff to qualify as teachers. This, however, would require money and the "generosity" to recognise that many playgroup staff had skills which should count towards a higher qualification.

The Government's controversial voucher scheme was keenly debated at the conference. A straw poll found only one delegate to be in favour of the scheme and when Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, attempted to defend the initiative in the last speech to the conference, her audience was hostile.

Mrs Shephard apologised to one early-years worker from Hackney who took offence at the minister's description of the voucher scheme as "a new way of thinking" and "putting children first". Child-care professionals had been putting children first all their working lives, the delegate said to applause.

The minister did concede that there were problems with the voucher scheme and this was why it was being tested in four local authorities. She said she would "seriously consider" a proposal from Professor Philip Graham, chair of the National Children's Bureau, to pay for research into the effectiveness of the first phase of the voucher scheme by measuring children's progress.

But if delegates were unimpressed with Mrs Shephard, they felt very differently about Anders Lynge Madsen, head of the children's division at the Danish social affairs ministry. He told the conference that Denmark spent more on day care for young children than it did on the military, and that house prices in his country were the highest in areas which could guarantee a day-care place.

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