Changes to early years funding have hit disadvantaged children hardest
Failure to give childcare providers the funding they need is a false economy. The Government must change course, or a generation of children will pay the price
I fought my third election in four years last December. Every election has been difficult but this one was undoubtedly my party’s worst showing. On the doorstep, people were unhappy with us about various policies and, in my constituency, people don’t hold back when they’re sceptical.
However, even the worst of critics seemed to applaud our manifesto pledges on early years and early education – including reversing the cuts to Sure Start; creating a truly universal service for under-twos by establishing Sure Start Plus; providing long-term funding for maintained nursery schools; recruiting 150,000 additional early years staff, including special educational needs co-ordinators; and 30 hours of free early education a week for all children aged two to four.
“Early years providers are starved of funding, and the sector has been left on the brink of collapse”
Labour has a proud history of investing in early education – whether that’s the late Tessa Jowell setting up Sure Start, our Flying Start programme in Wales, or delivering 15 hours’ free nursery education for all three- and four-year-olds. We also learned in government that early intervention saves money.
At present, the UK spends around £17bn a year on late interventions relating to problems affecting children and young people. This amounts to a third more than the entire annual Home Office budget, and the figure does not include costs in later life.
Evidence shows that a high-quality early years provision addresses educational inequalities and other deep-rooted issues.
Yet, since 2010, we have seen a different emphasis from the Government. At the same time cuts were made to Sure Start, we saw the introduction of 15 hours’ free childcare policy, increasing to 30 hours in 2017. Delivered through local authorities, funding is allocated to providers in the private, voluntary and independent sectors, as well as maintained state settings.
The problem with this is twofold. First, the funding is not finding its way to the frontline. As recent research by the National Day Nurseries Association found, three-quarters of local authorities underspent their budgets intended for early years education. Cash-strapped councils are being forced to prioritise other areas and plug gaps to balance their books.
The second issue is that underfunding is resulting in providers shouldering the cost. I chaired the APPG on Childcare and Early Education in the last Parliament and led an investigation into the 30 hours’ free childcare policy. As our APPG report found, the average cost of delivering an hour of early education for three- and four-year-olds was £5.36, whereas the Government’s funding rate is £4.46. This amounts to a £63m shortfall and has led to a 66% increase in the closure of providers.
After being recently appointed shadow minister for early years, I challenged the Government over its record on funding. The response was as predictable as it was concerning, pointing to the extra £66m of funding allocated at the last spending round.
The Government’s failure to give childcare providers the funding they need has consequences. Every pound of necessary funding withheld is a false economy, where the most disadvantaged lose out. Providers in the most disadvantaged areas are twice as likely to face closure as those in more affluent areas.
Boris Johnson has repeatedly acted as if his government is a change from the last decade of Tory misrule, with austerity at an end and new investment in communities. But the reality is that austerity is set to continue, Sure Start centres and early years providers are starved of the funding they need, and the sector has been left on the brink of collapse.
If the Government does not change course soon, and provide the funding necessary, then a generation of children will pay the price for their failures.
Tulip Siddiq is Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, and shadow early years minister