Interview: Brett Wigdortz, founder and chief executive of childminder agency Tiney

Derren Hayes
Monday, April 1, 2024

The founder and chief executive of childminder agency Tiney speaks to Derren Hayes.

Wigdortz: 'There’s very few people that have as much influence on someone’s life as a childminder.' Picture: Daniel Oakes
Wigdortz: 'There’s very few people that have as much influence on someone’s life as a childminder.' Picture: Daniel Oakes

After leading groundbreaking initiatives in the teaching and youth work sectors, Brett Wigdortz has now turned his attention to reforming the early years workforce. The founder of TeachFirst and former chair of the National Citizen Service (NCS) is now focused on leading the development of childcare services business Tiney which he co-founded five years ago. Tiney is one of only three childminder agencies to be set up in England. It uses a bespoke digital platform to help childminders manage their business, develop their skills and find places for children. The New Jersey native is a passionate advocate for improving social mobility and for the role good-quality early education services can play in that.

What made you turn your attention to early education?

Every young person deserves an outstanding education and during the last 20 years at TeachFirst I’ve realised more and more how important it is to start younger. There’s a lot of attention on secondary schools, but actually there’s lots of children out there who don’t get a good early education and as a result enter school already far behind. The main reason they don’t get that is because there’s not enough people who are providing that care – there’s a massive supply shortage. Parents are desperate to find really good care for their children so how do you deal with that shortage? How can we get great people and additional talent into this field? That was the problem that brought me to Tiney and finding a way to solve it.

What solutions have you come up with during your analysis of the sector?

One of the problems with early education is the salaries are just insanely low, like minimum wage or less. People don’t need to make a fortune but they do need to earn a professional salary – at least what a teacher earns. No one can explain why their salary should be less than what primary or secondary school teachers earn.

The problem with nurseries is they have so many overheads…that there’s just not the money to pay their staff as much as they want to. I’ve looked at the numbers – I think the only way you make them stack up is by reducing staff costs. I started to look at how we could get more money to the practitioner and that got me very interested in childminding.

What do you make of the current childminding landscape? On the face of it, it doesn’t seem like a thriving sector to enter?

What excites me about childminders is that it feels like this untapped sector of the early years – it felt like the sector had immense opportunity. In some ways you can compare it to Airbnb versus working at a hotel. You work at a hotel and you’re on minimum wage. You rent out your home for Airbnb and you could earn a good professional income. Many people have space at home that they can turn into a childminding setting. Just by taking care of three or four children they can earn a professional salary similar to a teacher and many people out there really enjoy taking care of small kids. It’s a fun job, many people are very good at it and they have the space for it.

So why have childminder numbers been falling for a decade?

Childminder numbers have been dropping for 20 years. I think there were 80,000 at the turn of the century, now there’s about 20,000. There’s no question, childminding is totally broken. But I think if you look at what it could be, then something gets very exciting. There’s 200,000 childminders in France. There’s no particular reason why except that it’s set up well for childminding.

There’s no problem finding parents [that want to use childminders]. That’s not an issue. And people enjoy being a childminder: it’s a fun job, it’s flexible, you can work it around your own family, you don’t need a university degree. I don’t think there’s any magical reason numbers are going down. I think there’s some structural issues which we’re trying to solve – many people good at working with small children are not good at running a business or opening a business. That’s two very different skill sets.

You think it is the administration and paperwork involved in being a childminder that is putting people off?

Totally. Very few childminders leave or don’t do it because they hate working with small kids. That’s the fun part. It’s everything else around it. If there was no one in the country responsible for training or supporting nurses, police, doctors, teachers there wouldn’t be any, but yet for childminding it’s okay for that to be the case. Google “I want to be a childminder” – the steps to doing it are very complicated. Then once you’re doing it it’s not like you have any support – there’s no one there pushing for more childminders. Going back to my Airbnb analogy…there’s always been people renting out their houses but until Airbnb came along no one really thought of it as a normal option.

How do you think Tiney can overcome this?

We’ve created this whole tech operating system that’s unique. My co-founder was the co-founder of Graze, the snack business, and created the tech so anyone could order the Graze snack boxes.

We’re now responsible for about half of all new childminders in the country. In the last six months we’ve recruited 363 childminders. Ofsted brought on 530 childminders. So we’re at about 40 per cent of the total and I’m sure this year we will recruit more than half of all new childminders.

We have tons of data on our childminders. We get them licensed and registered. We do all the checks and once they’re up and running we deal with everything from payments to contracts, all the parent communication, integrating different government payment schemes. We do their taxes for them.

Who sets their rates and do they pay a subscription to be a Tiney childminder?

We help childminders to set the rates. We use data through our tech. We say “look in your postcode – this is what local nurseries are charging”. We give them that information to help them set the rates. What we’ve seen is a lot of childminders undercharge and not do inflationary increases each year. What we do is, every year say “look, inflation was X, the local nursery went up by Y, you might want to think about raising your rates to try to ensure you’re charging the market rate”, but it’s up to them what they charge. All the funding comes through Tiney, so we deal with all the payments and we collect the money: they have a Tiney bank account and we take a percentage from it. We’ve set up like that rather than a subscription fee because the more successful they are the more successful we are.

What’s your reaction to proposals – for more flexibility for agencies and changes to childminder payment arrangements – in the government consultation on boosting childminding?

This consultation gives a platform for those with first-hand experience to shed light on what is and isn’t working. We’ve heard loud and clear from our community, for example, that the option to be paid monthly by their local authority for funded hours places is an absolute must. We’ve consistently recruited in strong numbers at Tiney, so we know that there’s an extraordinary appetite for childminding careers and we welcome all administrative changes that make it easier for newcomers to join the sector. But we also know that many new recruits want the kind of support that only a CMA can offer. Addressing the regulatory inequalities that exist between agency and Ofsted-registered childminders, like removing the regulatory tax burden faced by agency-registered childminders, would help to grow workforce numbers.

Communication delays and poor planning have plagued the government’s flagship policy. Policymakers must act swiftly once this consultation closes in order to open the door to new recruits and give clarity to the childminders who want this expansion to work just as much as parents do.

Could a change of government shift emphasis? What policies would you like a new government to adopt to narrow the attainment gap at reception age?

The government and the opposition are focused on more parents and children having access to high-quality early years education, which is great. That’s a real positive. It does, however, feel like this policy is almost half done. It’s not focused on the supply problems, which is a bit short-sighted.

Our childminders are full but now there’s going to be more parental demand. It doesn’t feel like there’s any real strategy or thought process on how to deal with that. What we’ve seen from the government is almost throwing things at the wall, which, in the most part, I don’t think will have much of an impact.

I don’t think a marketing campaign that they’re spending millions on will make much of an impact. I saw in teaching over 20 years, these marketing campaigns…for the most part don’t change anything. It’s not the best use of money.

What would help childminder agencies become more competitive?

This year we’re planning to recruit more than a thousand childminders and I think we’ve seen the system can work in places like the Netherlands where there are 200 agencies. There should be a hundred-plus childminder agencies in the UK. The reason it’s not where it should be is very simple – the regulatory burden. It costs us about £1,000 a year to regulate a childminder. Most of the regulation is a good thing; I’m not against this regulation. If someone is registered with Ofsted that’s all subsidised by the government.

We know what every one of our childminders is doing every day. It seems much better to regulate agencies than childminders. I think you would get lots of new childminders by doing that.

Can childminders help narrow the attainment gap?

Teaching in low-income schools like TeachFirst did we saw as a fantastic leadership opportunity. You’re leading children in a way that very few jobs can. I see childminding in the same way. If you’re a childminder for a child for two years, you have been with that child probably half of their life. You have had a bigger influence on that child than anyone except their guardians at home – you’re setting that child up for life. We know that this is the time that the brain is really developing. There’s very few people that have as much influence on someone’s life as a childminder – and that’s an incredible opportunity.

Brett Wigdortz - CV

  • Dec 2018 – present: Co-founder chief executive, Tiney

  • 2002 – Oct 2017: Founder and chief executive, Teach First

  • Jan 2018 – present: Non-executive director, Bite Back 2030

  • July 2018 – July 2023: Chair, National Citizen Service

  • 2007 – 2019: Co-founder, Teach For All

  • 2000 – 2002: Associate, McKinsey & Company

  • 1998 – 2000: Programme officer, Asia Society

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