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We are investing in childcare like never before – but the system could be simpler

(Andrew Fox / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

Do not mess with sleep-deprived mums and dads juggling kids and expensive childcare. That was my main message to anybody who would listen when I was pitching for an improved offer. I think I will now add – do not mess with sleep-deprived Conservative MPs. I and others are on the warpath to champion families and the early years sector.

For first time in history, a government put families and the early years workforce at the centre of a Budget last year as part of the UK’s growth strategy. We have committed to the biggest investment in childcare ever seen.  

It was always mad that the subsidised support only kicked in when a child became three years old when so many parents need or want to go back to work sooner. This has been fixed, with support being available from nine months later this year. Parents were relieved and excited.  

The reforms are not my perfect scheme or what the thinktank Onward and I cooked up in our report First Steps. We would have liked to see a simplified system rolling up some eight childcare offers, more parental choice in the form of childcare credits and reforms for how families with children are taxed. 

However, the Chancellor should not be criticised for having listened to parents and helped them. There are nearly a million job vacancies, businesses want to recruit and we are rebuilding the UK after the pandemic. The economy has a problem when parents tell us it’s not worth going to work due to childcare costs.  

Not paying childminders frequently or refusing to allow them to work in social housing are barriers we should wipe out

So, moaning about the reforms must stop. It is incumbent on us all to assist government, local authorities and providers to deliver the new schemes to help families. Not least as the Labour alternative is confused at best and will destroy brilliant privately owned childcare providers at worst.  

Here’s where we are now. 

Rates: Some childcare providers do not yet have details of the rates they will be paid. Government says the three to four year-old rates were published in April 2023 and two year-old rates in November 2023 so local authorities (LAs) have the information.  

Places: Department for Education surveys show a 15,100 increase in places (+1 per cent) in 2022/23. DfE is in monthly contact with LAs to ensure they have sufficient places and only small numbers are reporting concerns. Yet, I have constituents who cannot find places and providers are understandably holding back. I want government to look again once all LAs have released the rates information.  

Codes: There was a specific issue for claiming due to the daft requirement for parents to reconfirm their eligibility every three months for tax free childcare support. The minister worked with the charity Pregnant then Screwed and parents to find a work around. 

Workforce: There has been a 12,900 increase in staff (+4 per cent) but we need more of all types of early years professionals. And this is a workforce that needs some love. They are skilled, caring people who look after the most precious things in our lives. There is going to be a national recruitment campaign this year. I have spoken about this a lot and I want to see a big boost in childminders.  

I asked the Chancellor to keep a Treasury foot on the neck of the DfE for these reforms and DfE needs to keep on top of LAs. Get LAs to share best practice and name any who appear deliberately slow if necessary. Stupid, damaging things like not paying childminders frequently or refusing to allow them to work in social housing are LA barriers we should wipe out.  

The Labour Party has a brass neck criticising childcare. They booked venues for speeches then said nowt. Promised a new childcare NHS then reneged. Their big idea now is to have more nursery places in schools and let LAs be providers. Their announcement was described as “disappointing” by the Early Years Alliance and could destroy many excellent businesses.  

We need to crack on. Parents need to have choices. Children need to thrive. The early years workforce deserves a boost. Let’s get our heads down and deliver for them all.

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