Thank you for the introduction Naomi, and thank you to Govnet for organising today’s early years conference. It is great to have an opportunity to talk to you today about Labour’s plans for children and childcare.
I want to start by thanking you today for your work. As a parent of three, with two young children in nursery I know how important it is to parents to have trusted, qualified caring staff looking after our children.
As a society it is important that we value our childcare workforce. As well as the vital job you do supporting the development and well-being of our children, helping them grow into happy confident children alongside parents, you play a vital role in our economy; assisting parents to get out to work and be valued as more than just mums and dads.
So thank you for your commitment. I don’t think that’s said enough, certainly by the current government. I appreciate your efforts. It is imperative that we politicians engage with the sector, listen you your views, ideas and concerns if we’re to work together to deliver for parents and children the childcare sector that we want to see – with flexible, affordable and high quality care that benefits society and our economy.
That Labour values and champions high quality affordable childcare and early education is a given.
Through the last government we saw an unparalleled expansion of childcare places, the introduction of free early education for three and four year olds, with plans developing to extend this to disadvantaged two year olds; we instigated the extended schools programme and began programmes to increase the quality of the childcare workforce. Our 10 year childcare strategy looked to plot a course to a better childcare system and we put money in - vouchers and tax credits helping parents manage childcare costs and making work pay.
We also invested rightly in services and support for children and families to tackle disadvantage and give parents and children the best start in life. Sure Start Children’s Centres networked across the country, designed to support parenting and child development and integrate services in all our communities.
This didn’t happen by accident; it happened because Labour invested in the early years, developing programmes to tackle inequality, spread social justice, and provide opportunity to meet our aspirations for children and families. We invested in the next generation to make their start in life better than their parents and to help families become stronger and communities flourish.
Back to the Future under this Government – services for children and families
Yet we’re now seeing some of these successes rolled back. By the end of this Parliament the government will have cut £7 billion pounds worth of services and support from families. Heaping pressure on parents, and on the services they access.
Despite David Cameron’s promise to protect Sure Start, latest figures show that there are 576 fewer children’s centres across the country, with many more under threat. Many others are being hollowed out, with groups being cancelled, opening hours and staff reduced. The vision of a sure start centre in every community supporting parents and children has been decimated. And now, we can’t even effectively track the progress of children’s centres. The Minister has removed the information from the government website which allows us to monitor this.
We know that early intervention is key to improving the life chances of children and tackling the social mobility challenge. Yet for all their talk of early intervention this government has a poor record on supporting such initiatives. The early intervention grant has been cut by £1.2 billion pounds over this Parliament. The poorest areas have been the hardest hit with the ten most disadvantaged councils having their grants cut by 50% - cutting an average £14.6 million pounds from services to support the most vulnerable.
On childcare, we’re seeing a crunch on places with 35000 fewer early years places since the election. Costs are rising with prices up 30% under David Cameron. The cost of a nursery place has risen five times faster than wages and in the DfE Childcare and Early Years survey of parents last week costs were up 15% this year alone for some. At a time when wages are stagnating and prices are rising above inflation this government has put even more pressure on families by cutting tax credit support for childcare costs. This has had an immediate effect not just on families but on providers. I know from talking to businesses that this cut in support has directly affected their income with parents reducing the hours their children are in care.
The childcare crunch is acting as a drag on our economy – childcare costs are making it increasingly hard for some families – and mothers particularly to make work pay. Over half of out of work mothers would prefer to go out to work if they could and one in five working mothers said they would like to increase their working hours if they could arrange good quality childcare which was convenient, reliable and affordable.
The role of government is to break down barriers that get in the way of aspiration and progress. While I accept that we didn’t solve this in government, we did move forward. But now, I would argue, we are moving backwards.
The government has done nothing in this Parliament to support parents. They have failed in their attempts to loosen ratios – a victory for common sense. Looser ratios would have done nothing on cost and would have endangered child safety and quality provision. The government’s flagship tax free childcare offer won’t be introduced until late in 2015: it will not benefit the over fives, will require a complex new administrative system and will do nothing to incentivise work for the richest parents. The introduction of childminder agencies is haphazard at best, with many childminders against them, parents not knowing what they are for and no clear policy on what the cost to parents or providers might be.
Two year old offer
The one thing they have done on childcare – extending the two year old offer for the most disadvantaged – is in danger of not meeting its objectives.
Whilst I support the government’s drive for 15 hours free early education for two year olds, I share concerns about the ability to deliver enough quality places. Labour figures show that 38,000 two year olds do not have a place currently. Over thirty percent of councils are unsure or do not think they will be able to secure enough places for the extension of the offer to 260,000 two year olds by September 2014. The Sutton Trust have warned about the quality of provision available – it is vital that two year olds can access the highest quality provision possible. This is what will make a difference and help narrow the gap with their more affluent peers.
The Minister’s answer seems to be to get more schools offering two year olds places. Whilst I value the role schools play in delivering quality early education, shifting the onus on schools to deliver these places is an implicit failure of the government to tackle the childcare places crisis.
Poor planning and a fixation on free schools means that in many areas we’re experiencing a primary school places crisis. With the best quality schools already oversubscribed in their local areas it is pie in the sky for government to suggest that schools take up the slack on two year olds without any new funding.
Minister Truss claims this policy is cost neutral but many schools, particularly in urban areas do not have the space for reception classes let alone the resource to build more nursery classes for two year olds. Without a significant injection of capital these plans will be a damp squib and will be meaningless for parents. They will do little to tackle the crisis in places.
Indeed, in my own area of Manchester, in spite of this push for schools to provide more nursery places for two year olds, the government are hindering not helping local provision by threatening the pooled school budgets that allow Manchester to provide full time nursery provision in schools. The Council is trying to preserve the best aspects of its historic commitment to full time school nursery provision but the requirements of the national funding framework are making this difficult.
There is also a question here about what type of childcare we want for our youngest children. Whilst there are many excellent school nurseries providing high quality care for three and four year olds, the needs of a two year old and the type of provision are markedly different. Ratios are lower, rightly. The types of activities and interaction necessary to help a two year old develop and grow are distinct. I would be concerned as I know many parents would be, if this focus on the schoolification of care for two year olds was not right for their needs. Two year olds need to learn through play and through more tailored support. Any additional capacity for childcare through schools is welcome, but this needs to be age and setting appropriate for our youngest alongside measures to give parents a choice about the kind of provision they want their children to access. I want to see more partnerships between schools and PVI providers including childminders, so that they can work together to tailor the offer for families and children.
A Vision for Childcare and early years
The problems facing parents and the sector are growing and only radical action will make a real difference.
Families facing a cost of living crisis will be helped by Labour’s plans to extend free childcare from 15 to 25 hours for three and four year olds with parents in work. I want this to be a real offer to parents and I’ll continue to work with the sector to ensure that we’re ready to deliver this offer once in government.
It will mean for the first time that a second earner can work part time without having to worry about childcare costs. I know that funding and managing the free offer and its extension is an issue for some providers and I will continue to talk to the sector about this and other pressing issues as we move forward.
This offer is a step towards my ambition to oversee a childcare revolution focused on increased supply side funding. Extending the free offer is a signal of our intent in this regard.
But parents of school aged children also face problems with wrap around childcare. In some areas the extended schools programme Labour introduced was embedded and parents can access before and after school care for their children. But the government reversed these plans on coming into office and in some areas parents struggle with the logistical nightmare of finding provision that suits their family’s needs. Our primary childcare guarantee will give parents a legal right to provision provided through their local school or nearby. It will help parents manage work and caring. I want to work with you to ensure that this offer has real meaning to parents and children and that we have a quality offer that can stretch and improve the life chances of children through stimulating and interesting activities.
Ensuring that we have a high quality offer for parents and children is also my priority. There’ll be no watering down of ratios. We will work with you about how we can take forward proposals to get more quality provision, upskilling the workforce and making sure that the sector is valued.
I worry that a future Conservative government could revisit the ratios issue and I will continue to campaign for reform that does not sacrifice quality and endanger children in this way.
Childcare qualifications and inspections must be right. Childcare must be seen as the valued profession that it is. The care of our youngest is of real importance – and the status of the people charged with looking after our children should follow this.
I don’t have all the answers yet on how we’ll move forward with workforce development – in times of restrained public finances we will have to look across the board at options for improving quality in the workforce. But unlike the current administration I will look to have a positive dialogue with the sector on how we can move forward with this issue to ensure that there is proper entry level opportunities and career progression for childcare staff.
On Sure Start, we will inherit a much reduced system and at this stage it is hard to say what provision will look like. I’m working with colleagues in local government to look at how we can maintain a universal sure start service whilst targeting specialist and high cost services at those that need them most. Outreach is a key component of this type of service, as is working in partnership with health and other local agencies.
Some local authorities are rolling out a major reform of Sure Start which combines multi agency working with health visitors and outreach workers. They have successfully increased engagement with the most hard to reach families. Crucial to this model is the sharing of live birth data. Alongside this targeted outreach every child in the local authority will soon receive support from pre-birth to school. We can and should have a universal service that also targets extra help where it is most needed.
Conclusion – Investing in the early years
The investment we make in the early years is of vital importance not just to our economy but to the lives of children and families. High quality affordable, flexible childcare can be transformative for both parents and children’s futures.
I want to see a childcare system that works for all children, parents and providers, including disabled children and families working atypical hours. A system that has quality at the heart with a professional workforce valued for their commitment to the lives of the families they serve.
We must move to reform our childcare system if we are to make the strides we need to improve opportunity. My ambition is for us to move towards a childcare system that provides choices for parents when they need it most, when mothers and fathers are thinking about how they will return to work and how work will pay, that supports the most vulnerable young people to flourish and have the same opportunities as their peers. That ensures that no child is left behind and that no parent that wants to cannot work, or work the hours they want.
Labour’s approach to childcare is to break down the barriers affecting parents and children. To remove the barriers to our economic prosperity. To ensure that we have a childcare system that speaks to our values of social justice and fairness for all.
I look forward to working with you as we move forward and develop proposals for government.