Policy paucity

MaggieJones2014.jpgMaggie Jones outlines our deep concerns with the government’s new childcare proposals 

The Childcare Bill, which has its Lords Second Reading this week, seeks to introduce an entitlement of 30 hours per week of free childcare for three and four year old children of working parents, by September 2017; and places a duty on councils to publish information about the local provision of childcare and related services. Labour supports the principles of the Bill but there is increasing controversy about the lack of detail, particularly over funding.

The heart of the problem is that the government’s previous policy of 15 hours free childcare has been underfunded, with private and voluntary nurseries operating at a financial loss. Some have cross-subsidised this, by charging much higher rates for anything over 15 hours, whilst others have refused to participate or withdrawn from the sector. The government have recognised this problem and announced a Taskforce, chaired by Employment Minister Priti Patel, to review the funding formula.

The outcome of the review is not yet known. However, the majority of childcare places are in the private rather than State sector, and if they cannot be appeased by an increase in funding it is unlikely that the policy can be implemented effectively. In parallel, the availability of local authority nursery places is dwindling with a recent report showing that there are now 49 councils in England without a single maintained nursery school.

In their general election manifesto, the Conservatives estimated that the policy would cost £350million, funded by reducing tax relief on pensions for those earning over £150,000 a year. This cost estimate always seemed unrealistic, and if there is now to be a new funding deal there will be additional money to be found. Understandably, there are huge questions about where that will come from – with child benefit cuts, reductions in other early years’ provision and extra demands on local authority budgets all in the line of fire.

There are other worrying aspects to the Bill. While the focus is providing subsidised childcare to get parents back to work, we have argued for many years that the essence of a good childcare strategy is to invest in early years’ child development. That is how you address the attainment gap. And to do so means starting early and concentrating quality resources in the communities with the highest deprivation. Just like we did in government, with our Sure Start programme.

The Tories’ childcare strategy provides no additional support for Children’s Centres for the youngest kids and then provides related tax relief for families earning up to £300,000. It does nothing to address the fact that nursery provision in the poorest neighbourhoods is of the poorest quality. Over 25% of two year olds are attending settings that have not been judged as good or outstanding by Ofsted. This Bill will do little to tackle the root cause of education inequality.

The additional hours’ childcare that are being promised look like they will only be made available to children where both parents are in work. This means that job-seekers and those undertaking work-related training will be excluded. We will therefore, challenge the government over its qualifying criteria.

The Bill, as it stands, is only six clauses long and suggests that the finer details of the scheme will be published later, in secondary legislation. In a recent Today programme interview, Priti Patel floundered when asked to describe which parents would qualify for the free places, and it is clear that the government have not thought through the details. This is not good enough and makes it difficult to scrutinise and, if necessary, amend the Bill. Labour will therefore, be demanding answers to some very basic questions before we can proceed.

Perhaps then, we will be able to genuinely gauge whether these proposals will have any impact on our country's early years’ educational inequalities.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 15th June 2015

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