A childminder is someone registered with OFSTED to care for children under the age of eight in their own home for more than two hours per day.

The law does not require them to register if they care only for children aged eight or over.

Childminders may care for a maximum of six children under eight, only three of whom may be under five. Of those three, only one child may be under a year old. This includes their own children under the age of eight.

All childminders must be registered with OFSTED, who must ensure their suitability for the work.

This involves assessing potential minders' ability to meet the needs of young children and is achieved through addressing issues such as child protection, religion, culture, ethnicity and language.

Police checks and health and safety checks of the home environment are also carried out prior to registration. All childminders are subject to annual inspections by OFSTED.

Childminders are usually willing to work all year round but will require a period of paid leave.

Most will expect you to settle your child in and will require some payment for this period.

Childminders provide full or part-time daycare for the under-fives, and before/after school and holiday care for school-age children.

They can provide a wide range of activities for children and most will provide meals and are willing to cater for special dietary requirements.

All childminders are encouraged to use a contract, though some may choose not to. If a contract is used, it should be signed and dated by both the childminder and the family using the service.

Childminders are also required to take out public liability insurance.

Although there are no formal qualifications for childminders, most have practical experience of looking after and raising their own children.

Some have undergone training in childcare and there are an increasing number of opportunities for childminders to undertake further training.

All childminders are encouraged to attend some training during their registration process.

Childminders are entitled to fix their own fee and this will vary not only from mind-er to minder but from area to area.

When negotiating a fee with a childminder, you should ensure you know what is and what is not included in the charge.

Some childminders charge by the hour and you may find they charge a higher rate for part-time places due to the difficulties of matching vacancies.

Most childminders do not hold waiting lists and so will advertise their vacancies with the Childcare Information Service and area vacancy co-ordinators as soon as they arise.

Issues to consider:

Start looking for a childminder well in advance.

Make second visits to the people you liked.

Take your child with you to see how they get on.

Contact other parents as referees.

Be clear about what type of care you want.

Be prepared to spend time settling your child in.

Prepare a list of questions.

Useful contacts:

National Childminders Association, 8 Masons Hill, Bromley, Kent BR2 9EY. Tel 0208 464 6164.

Recruitment Officer, Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership, tel 01323 636105.

KITES Childcare Information, tel 01323 737294 or 0845 6010777. The helpline is open 9am-6pm every weekday, except Wednesday when an answerphone service operates, and 9am-12.30pm on Saturday.