Government's promises on early years are empty rhetoric after a decade of failure
We need a big conversation on early years to look at how we can rebuild vital social infrastructure like childcare in a way that meets the needs of families in decades to come.
Early years education and childcare underpins children’s life chances and the jobs of working parents. It has a huge role to play as our young people and economy recover from the pandemic.
Yet the sector that provides these essential services is collapsing. The first three months of this year saw the loss of over 2,000 nurseries, childminders and nannies in England. That’s on top of the 12,000 early years providers that have disappeared since 2015 due to chronic underfunding.
I was therefore surprised to hear that early years was one of the government’s ‘priorities’ in the Queen’s Speech. Families who have been struggling to find affordable childcare or impacted by the closure of their local nursery will wonder how much of a priority it really is for the Conservatives.
Ministers seem to think that if they rebrand children’s centres as family hubs the public will forget they spent a decade closing over a thousand of them
The only new investment promised by the government to back up their promise in the Queen’s Speech is £14 million to champion ‘Family Hubs’ – centres which provide joined up early support for children and their families. Sound familiar? That’s because the last Labour government’s Sure Start programme saw the opening of 3,600 children’s centres which delivered exactly this support.
Ministers seem to think that if they rebrand children’s centres as family hubs the public will forget that they have spent a decade closing over a thousand of them. The one-off £14 million promised doesn’t begin to make up for the £560 million of Sure Start spending that has been cut since 2015. Recent research by the London School of Economics found that Conservative cuts to early years services like Sure Start have reversed much of Labour’s progress in tackling childhood inequalities.
Empty rhetoric from the government is not going to get us back on track, and the situation appears to be getting worse. Local authorities are struggling to keep existing children’s centres open and a third of all their maintained nursery schools are being forced to cut staffing and services. Tens of thousands more private early years providers fear imminent closure. And shockingly low pay and a lack of recognition is driving nursery workers and childminders away from the industry.
So, what can we do to fix this? Firstly, we must help struggling businesses to survive the pandemic, support workers and stop chipping away at public services. But we need to think bigger than that. I recently started a big conversation on early years as part of Labour’s Bright Future Taskforce to look at how we can rebuild vital social infrastructure like childcare in a way that meets the needs of families in decades to come.
In the months ahead, my frontbench colleagues and I will be speaking directly to families, communities and early years practitioners around the country about the support they need to give all our children the very best start in life. The world of work is changing, and we will be working with parents to develop a programme that will deliver the affordable childcare that they so badly need.
The last Labour government drastically improved outcomes for children by investing in the early years and high-quality childcare, which also increased opportunities for working parents – primarily mothers. We are listening to the public about what will be needed to deliver a similar transformation now.
Tulip Siddiq is the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn and Shadow Minister for Children and Early Years.