What do you do if you are a working parent who doesnt have a conventional nine-to-five job?

The answer for many shift workers, including doctors and nurses who work antisocial hours in order to keep the country running, is to find a good childminder and nurture her or, increasingly, him.

Yet, childminders rarely get the recognition they deserve. As June is National Childcare Month, why not take the opportunity to send your childminder a thank you card?

For too long, childminders have been the Cinderellas of the childcare world, even though they look after 60 per cent of under-fives.

What is more, they have to meet rigorous national standards.

Unlike the wealthy mothers favourite, the nanny, but like nurseries and playgroups, they must register with Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education.

As a home-based entrepreneur, operating like a smallscale nursery, a childminder can be responsible for up to three under-fives, only one of whom can be under one, and perhaps three older children.

There are strict regulations about adult-to-child ratios, which recognise that babies, for example, need more oneto-

one care.

That aside, as childminders now benefit from NVQ training as well as short courses in key areas such as first aid or working with children with special needs, they are more up to date on childcare matters than ever before.

As a result, all registered childminders are fully aware of the new Foundation Stage Curriculum and most plan the day so their small charges can genuinely learn and develop through play.

Like their counterparts working in nurseries and playgroups, they work to ensure that play allows development in all six learning areas in the curriculum, from literacy and numeracy to creative development.

Imagine the scope: Drawing round each others bodies and colouring them in, experimenting with hand prints and learning through experience about basic shapes.

While developing manual dexterity and the concentration that underpins education, this can also be a hugely enjoyable way of learning the basics of maths, the school subject most often dubbed "boring".

Looking after a small group of children at home also means many opportunities for letting off steam and trying out the new. This can bring many of the benefits of home life that working parents often cannot contemplate until weekends.

During the course of a week, the children might also attend a mother-and-

toddler group where they learn to mix with others.

Nothing stands still, though. Increasingly, childminders are joining childminder networks, working towards the Childcare Comes First quality standard, set by the National Childminding Association.

Network childminders have more opportunities for professional training and can work towards becoming accredited to offer subsidised early-education places, funded by the Government.

Helen Standen is the
manager of Kites Childcare Information, which works with East Sussex County Councils Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership, which is responsible for developing childcare provision in the county. For information on childcare provision in East Sussex, ring Kites on 01323 737294. In Brighton &

Hove, ring 01273 293545 or visit www.childcare link.gov.uk