Aiming High for Childcare, Children and Families
Thank you Neil, for inviting me here to speak to your conference, AGM and exhibition today. I know you’ve got a packed agenda and I’m grateful for you giving me the opportunity to speak to and listen to your members for part of this morning.
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be here for the beginning of your session – I had my hands full this morning getting a one year old, four year old and ten year old all up dressed and ready for their days before setting off on the journey from Manchester. As a working parent day in day out I’m reminded of the contribution childcare makes in enabling parents to balance having a successful career and home life.
I’m grateful too for Neil giving me a sneak preview of his speech given I couldn’t be in the hall for it. In him you have an energetic champion who provides a constructive dialogue on the key issues facing the sector today and I welcome that.
Pre-School Learning Alliance and the Sector
In many ways, the journey of the Alliance is the journey of the sector whose members you represent. Formed in 1961 by a mother [Belle Tutaev] concerned by the absence of a state nursery place for her child the Alliance has grown to represent thousands of childcare providers working with hundreds of thousands of families and children. The parents as partners approach pioneered by the Alliance in those early days is still a critical element today to ensure the best quality provision and the best start in life for all children.
But the Pre School Learning Alliance didn’t just grow out of partnership working with parents – it grew and thrived as a result of partnership working with policy makers and government too.
The Alliance was witness to and contributor to the massive expansion in early years childcare places and provision overseen by the last government. Labour’s agenda for a more inclusive, community focused childcare model working for parents and communities happened with the support and encouragement of pioneering organisations like the Alliance.
I know the last few years have been challenging for the early years sector. The global financial crisis and the impact on family finances means that many providers are struggling to make ends meet.
We’ve also seen changes to regulation and the childcare landscape which have alarmed many and I know you’ve been a leading voice in concerns about the attempt to water down ratios and introduce childminder agencies. Childminders play a vital role in our childcare economy which is why it is so worrying that recent figures show an exodus from the market as concerns over agencies and the impact they’ll have on individual childminders grow.
For me, there’s a theme that has developed over recent years which goes to the heart of your concerns and the issues the sector faces.
Some of these changes have been unsettling because they are conducted by Ministers that are out of touch with the lives of parents and children and view childcare professionals are barriers to overcome rather than trusted colleagues to listen and learn from.
There is a sense amongst people I speak to on my nursery visits up and down the country that the sector yearns to be listened to and respected.
Whilst I can’t promise to agree with you on everything I do know that it is only by working in partnership with the sector and the professionals who work with children every day that we can achieve the results I know you want to see as much as I do, a more comprehensive high quality childcare system that is fit for children and working parents as well as for providers. A Labour government would build on the strengths of our shared history in putting early years centre stage rather than setting ourselves against you.
Let me be clear – I value the work you all do every day supporting children and their families. I value your commitment. Your enthusiasm and your knowledge of what works. As Minister for Childcare and Children in a Labour government I would continue the positive dialogue I have had with the sector so far and mirror the evidence based approach of successful Ministers for Children such as Margaret Hodge and Bev Hughes. I see my role as a champion for parents and children pushing for a better deal in government for early years and working with the early years workforce to ensure children get the best start in life and barriers parents face to working are removed to benefit family finances and the economy.
Labour has a proud record of working in partnership with the sector in the interests of parents and children.
During our time in office we put early years at the heart of government policy culminating in the creation of the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Labour’s legacy is imprinted on the fabric of our communities – Sure Start Children’s Centres providing support to all parents, the free early years entitlement giving three and four year olds a good start in life. Work to professionalise and improve the pay and conditions of staff in the sector so we can raise the status of the profession and attract high quality staff in every setting.
Our values of leaving no child behind were backed by unprecedented investment in the social fabric of our country. We maintain this ambition that no child will be left behind.
Looking back on Labour’s ten year childcare strategy it’s easy to see how far we’ve come. But it’s also right and fair to say that there is more to do.
Because challenges faced by parents and providers today still mirror those of ten years ago. If anything they’ve got bigger. But while the challenge is great the rewards could be greater still.
Incremental Change has stymied the system
Because if we can get our childcare system right it is not only children and families that can benefit but the economy too.
Let’s be honest. Childcare is a nightmare for many mums and dads today. Labour has a proud legacy as the Party of childcare yet incremental change has left a myriad of funding arrangements for parents and providers which are making the system harder and harder to navigate – to many parents, often the changes we have seen are not worth more than the sum of their parts.
Parents with young children struggling under David Cameron’s childcare crunch of rising prices, falling places and cuts to support are having to rely on a patchwork of support which is being reduced, not increased by Ministers. The current system not only gives parents a headache it means that the considerable sums of money being pumped into the system are diluted by differing administrative systems and funding streams.
Our childcare system has not kept pace with family life and rather than enabling work, for many dads and mums particularly, childcare is a barrier to their ambitions to have a happy home and work life balance.
Simplifying the System for Parents and Providers
We need a simpler system for parents to understand whether work will pay or not. You shouldn’t need a PHD to work out if you’re better off in rather than out of work.
The government has ducked this childcare challenge. Whilst any extra support for childcare is welcome tax free childcare is a missed opportunity to clarify and simplify the system. With no help until after the election it will mean parents have gone a whole Parliament without any help on childcare from government.
Indeed, tax free childcare now makes the system more complex for parents not less. Particularly those on tax credits and universal credit interacting with the tax free system.
That’s why Labour are promising to expand free childcare from 15 to 25 hours for working parents with three and four year olds. This help will be clear for parents to understand and will make a real difference to families, helping to make work pay. Our Primary Childcare Guarantee will help parents balance work and family life by guaranteeing childcare places at before and after school clubs at their local school or nearby.
For me there are three policy outcomes for which high quality flexible childcare is part of the solution. Our maternal employment rates, particularly for mothers with children age 1-4 are bad when compared with other OECD countries. Childcare is a barrier to growing the economy and boosting maternal employment. To grow a sustainable recovery that does not leave anyone behind investment in childcare should be a priority.
It is scandalous too that the gender pay gap is widening, not reducing. Too many mothers still face a pay and status penalty in the labour market for having children. It’s time for government to get the message that this is bad for families but also bad for the economy. Pregnancy discrimination, inflexible working opportunities and a lack of affordable childcare all act as a drag on career chances and family choices for mums and dads. A more comprehensive childcare system integrated with family friendly working practices would also enable more dads to play the role they want and free more women to succeed at work as well as at home.
We must also make the social argument for childcare. High quality childcare can close the developmental gap and give the most vulnerable the boost they need to do well in school and later in life. Quality childcare can lay the foundations for our country’s future and be a key tool in our early intervention armoury. Whilst many childcare settings provide good quality care there is room for improvement.
Tied to this will be a reinvigoration of Sure Start’s core principles. David Cameron broke his promise on Sure Start and families and communities up and down the country are paying the price. He promised at the last election to protect Sure Start yet we’ve seen 500 fewer centres and services hollowed out. We’ve seen the Early Intervention grant used to fund Sure Start cut nearly in half and a fall in opening hours and staff.
Labour is the Party of Sure Start and early intervention. We remain committed to Sure Start and I will continue to work with Shadow Cabinet colleagues to develop our approach to Sure Start for 2015.
Challenges Facing the Sector
I know you have concerns about the level of funding of the free entitlement. It’s an issue I’m alive to and something that I’ll continue to look at as we plan for Labour’s extension of the free offer for three and four year olds to 25 hours. I want this to be a real offer for parents. I know too, that there isn’t a level playing field for private and voluntary sector providers compared with maintained nursery settings in schools. The funding system is complicated for providers too. I’m welcome your views on how the system can work better for providers too.
On quality early education and childcare we’ve seen from the Nuffield Foundation research published last week how quality provision for three and four year olds in deprived areas can be mixed. There are many excellent PVI providers working in challenging circumstances and I know from my own constituency the difference quality early years education and childcare can make to disadvantaged families. Graduate leadership has been identified again as a key to improving some of this provision and I want to work with you to see how we can increase the number of graduates in these settings. I welcome the announcement of the early years premium from the government and will look at how this might work in practice and how it can support quality across the sector in all settings.
I share some of your concerns too about the government’s ideas for changes to the early years curriculum.
I favour an approach where children learn through a mixture of play and age appropriate activities, supported by high quality early years professionals. This could be in a teacher-led setting such as a school or in a private, voluntary or independent nursery or with a childminder.
However, it is important that all children, and particularly the most vulnerable are supported to start school with the ability to do well. That’s why I support strongly the Early Years Foundation Stage introduced by Labour. It is a popular and well regarded tool.
Aiming higher for children and families with a childcare system that works for modern families is at the heart of Ed Miliband’s One Nation vision for modern Britain.
A system that supports parents to get back to work or work the hours they want.
A system that helps make work pay for parents as well as providers and staff.
A system which gives children the opportunities they need to develop and meet the challenges they will face in the future.
The childcare sector is crucial to delivering this vision for a better childcare system. Just over six months into my Shadow role we want to continue listening and learning from you as we continue to develop ideas for government.
I will continue to engage constructively with the PVI and maintained sector to build the better childcare system we need for Britain to succeed.