Labour will develop the best possible early years system to build a better society
The early years system is being underfunded and undermined – we must invest in high-quality nursery education delivered by qualified teachers, says Tracy Brabin
If, like me, you have spent many days visiting childcare providers, you will know they’re in a state of flux. Recent years have seen a move from childcare being predominately privately funded, to increasingly state funded. This is a welcome relief for families, as childcare bills are prohibitively expensive for many.
Most recently, 30 hours of ‘free’ childcare has been introduced. Famously announced by David Cameron during the 2015 general election, it was clearly popular with parents as the Conservatives went on to win a surprise parliamentary majority.
Yet almost as quickly as the announcement was made, concerns were raised about whether there was sufficient funding. Two-and-a-bit years on, the policy has just been launched. Continued representations from the childcare sector have been unsuccessful as the government has remained steadfast in its resolution to keep costs down.
This has caused problems for the childcare sector, with many outstanding providers walking away from the profession and even more saying they’re unsure whether they’ll be financially viable in 12 months’ time. It’s hard to imagine the government treating another sector of the economy in such a way. It’s people’s livelihoods, businesses and the ability to give young people the best start to their education they’ve put at risk.
The concerns of providers have been well publicised and we’ll discover the full impact on the sector as the year goes on. Yet there are more reasons to be worried.
Figures published by Ceeda, an independent research consultancy, showed the number of vacancies in the sector is spiralling and providers are struggling to fill them. Almost one in two (45%) private and voluntary sector day nurseries and pre-schools have vacancies, totalling an estimated 24,600 posts, and 84% say they struggle to fill vacancies. If this was primary schools, we’d be talking of a recruitment crisis.
The Sutton Trust education charity has research to show the government’s 30-hour policy risks widening the gap even further between poorer children and their wealthier peers before school.
One would have thought that this evidence would give the Tories pause for thought. Instead they seem fixated on delivering a manifesto pledge, rather than building a system we can be proud of.
Across the aisle, Labour wants to develop the best possible early years system to build a better society, starting at the beginning. Our targets can be broadly broken down into three areas – an expansion of universal and subsidised childcare, a transition to a graduate-led workforce, and a supply-side funding model.
We want to expand 30 hours of free childcare to all two- to four-year-olds over the course of the next parliament. We realise that, at a time when childcare costs are continuing to rise, families who most need support meeting those costs, and the children who will benefit the most from high-quality early years education, are not receiving that provision.
Phasing in a progressive system of subsidised provision would ensure that everyone, whatever their circumstances and working patterns, can access the childcare they need. A supply-side funding model is widely seen as the most effective way to fund early provision – a best practice system where all funding is made directly in services.
We’re also researching how best to transition to a qualified, graduate-led workforce, by increasing staff wages and enhancing training opportunities. This will provide much-needed support to staff, who carry out a public service just as vital as teaching in our schools, yet are some of the most poorly paid people in our society.
This will also help children, and in particular those from poorer families who benefit the most from high-quality early years education. This will go beyond day-to-day funding to include substantial capital investment over the course of a parliament.
By taking these steps and placing quality at the heart of early years education we’ll improve child development, and address the crisis in social mobility in Britain. The difference between Labour and Conservative couldn’t be clearer.
Tracy Brabin is Labour MP for Batley and Spen and shadow early years minister