Smoke, mirrors and political conjuring

Maggie JonesMaggie Jones on the impact of Coalition plans for early education on Sure Start centres

What is the real story behind Ministers’ much publicised support for extra early years’ provision? This is the subject of debate in the Lords today as we consider the importance of early years’ education.

On the face of it, we are united in recognising that a child’s experience between ages 0 to 5 determines their subsequent life chances. Children nurtured and stimulated will flourish whilst those who are neglected show a pattern of higher unemployment, addiction and crime. The case for early intervention is compelling. But what has been the government’s response?

Firstly, the Sure Start programme introduced by the last Labour government provided, for the first time, a comprehensive early intervention programme that helped whole families by improving parenting skills and providing stimulating learning environments for young people. Despite its short existence, it was starting to deliver results and we were rightly proud of it. 

The Coalition’s response on coming to power was to remove the ring fenced funding and cut grants. Today, their own figures show a net reduction in Sure Start centres by 281 since the 2010 General Election. Additionally, a recent 4children survey reported that 50% of centres say their finances are less sustainable, 55% no longer provide on-site childcare, and 20% have reduced the number of qualified teachers. Sure Start centres are now struggling to survive, and the original concept of a one-stop shop for vulnerable young families has been torn up.

Secondly, the Coalition has made great play of an announcement that they plan to extend free nursery education to disadvantaged 2 year olds, with a promise that new money would be made available for the purpose of funding the places. This claim was repeated by the Minister, Baroness Garden in the Lords on 11th October. Our research however, shows that this ‘new money’ is now being absorbed by the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles into a bigger Dedicated Schools Grant, itself being cut. Overall, the CLG department’s projections for the lifetime of this Parliament, reveal a 40% cut in the early intervention money. 

The reality of the fall in funding and the associated political conjuring has been described by one leading Tory Councillor as ‘typical smoke and mirrors’. Meanwhile, Merrick Cockell, Conservative Leader of the LGA has written to Michael Gove saying “I fear this move is counterproductive because it will force local authorities to cut early intervention services even further which will inevitably lead to increased demand for more costly longer-term/lifelong interventions”.

Finally, if you want a real insight into the Coalition’s future thinking on early education you should look no further than new Education Minister, Elizabeth Truss. In a recent pamphlet she made the case for the deregulation of the sector with professional staff replaced by a mum’s army of volunteers. So, far from a consensus, there are real differences between the government and ourselves on what constitutes high quality, early years’ education and, of course, its’ funding. 

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a Shadow Education Minister in the Lords 

Published 8th November 2012

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