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Former Education Minister Says Childcare Needs Boost For Students And Disadvantaged Families

Provision of free childcare for working families is being expanded this week (Alamy)

5 min read

Chair of the Education Select Committee Robin Walker has said Government childcare measures must go further to support families and the early years sector, urging the government to expand provisions to graduate students and disadvantaged groups.

On Monday, provision of free childcare will be extended to working families with two-year-olds for 15 hours a week, which will then increase to 30 hours for all under-fives from September 2025.

Walker, a Tory MP and former education minister between 2021 and 2022, told PoliticsHome that any expansion of childcare provisions was “very welcome”, but said that his committee would be closely watching what the outcome of the new provisions will be in the coming years – particularly in whether there is a significant change in the number of parents accessing early years care and which groups are reached across the country.

“To what extent are you providing subsidies for things that people would otherwise be paying for themselves is part of the question,” he said.

“Because if the Treasury's analysis is right, that this will help people to work who otherwise wouldn't be able to work, you'd hope that this will be additive and you'll find more people taking up that childcare, who weren't originally taking up childcare and accessing work as a result. So I think looking at measures like that will be quite important.”

The Education Committee made multiple recommendations to the government as a result of an inquiry into childcare provisions last year – many of which have not since been taken up. The committee’s report recommended that the government extend free childcare hours to parents in training or education, which would be particularly important for single parents who need to retrain to secure more flexible work.

With the new scheme coming into force, Walker said he would still like to see this change further down the road.

“I hope that's something that all parties can consider for their manifestos, because I do think there's an important group there,” he said.

“I recently met with a group representing graduate students who were saying one of the big problems for the retention of graduate students studying in the UK is the fact that they don't get childcare support. 

“If we believe passionately, as I think most people cross-party do, in the STEM agenda and getting more women into high power positions in science, part of that is providing proper opportunities for people to have childcare while they are pursuing research and skilling up in that space.”

Robin Walker
Robin Walker is standing down as an MP at the next general election (Alamy)

With free childcare usually only available for ‘working’ families, Walker also highlighted the need to further consider what measures could be introduced to specifically support disadvantaged families and single parents.

The committee report last year recommended expanding the Family Hubs model across the UK, described by the government as a ‘one stop shop’ for face-to-face support and information for families with zero to two-year-olds.

“I think the focus on working families is one which is totally understandable from an economic perspective, but I think it does raise questions around how this compares to the original two-year-old offer, which was very much targeted at disadvantage,” Walker said.

“I'd like to see an expansion to both. I think it's understandable from a Treasury perspective that the priority is people who can work and make a contribution to the economy, but there are undoubtedly benefits to helping people who are on lower incomes than the current thresholds. 

“Fundamentally, I think the rationale for doing family hubs and investing in that applies everywhere in the country. At the moment, it's being targeted in a few specifically disadvantaged areas: I think that's something that the committee has concluded should be rolled out everywhere as swiftly as possible and if we could see that, I think that would make a real difference.”

Joeli Brearley, the founder of influential parenting charity Pregnant Then Screwed, told PoliticsHome that the free childcare expansion promised by Government could leave parents “really disappointed” if they do not see a significant fall in their childcare costs.

She also urged the government to implement a new Workforce Strategy to address the recruitment and retention crisis in the early years sector. Walker shared her concerns over the sector’s ability to provide the full extent of the government’s pledges.

“There are undoubtedly big challenges with the recruitment of early years professionals and with the capacity of settings, and I think some of the solutions we set out to use in our report haven't yet been delivered on things like removing business rates and VAT from childcare providers to help with the costs,” he said.

Describing the government’s proposals as a “mixed picture”, he added that the minimum wage rises due to come into effect on Monday would also have a “significant impact” on the early years sector over the next two years.

“If I had one criticism of the budget is that there was a welcome extra £500m to support wage increases for people in the early years, I do think that was important and necessary, but I don't think there was anything further to support this. 

“I think the sector certainly would say that they will need more support to deliver on the scale of ambition that's been settled.”

The Department for Education said: “We are confident in the strength of our childcare market as we deliver the largest ever expansion in childcare in England’s history and every local authority nationally is currently meeting its statutory duty to secure sufficient numbers of free childcare places.

“We have significantly increased our childcare rates and provided £100 million in capital support to grow the sector – which has already seen over 40,000 more places in the past five years alone.

“To further boost the early years workforce, we have launched a range of new workforce initiatives including our national recruitment campaign and up to £1,000 cash incentive pilot to encourage new staff into the sector.”

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