Personal Finance

Free childcare for 30 hours a week? It sounds too good to be true – and for worse-off families, it is | Polly Toynbee

Free childcare! Thirty hours a week from nine months until primary school was the eye-catcher in the chancellor’s spring budget. Was this, finally, Scandinavian-quality nurseries? No, sadly.

A groan of despair rippled through the stricken early-years sector when the autumn statement at last revealed which nurseries will get to deliver this. Free? Only if parents can find a place. Many nurseries have been unable to survive on government rates, with a 50% rise in closures in the last financial year. Ofsted reports a net loss of 400 nurseries in a year, and tens of thousands of places gone. The Early Years Alliance’s own charitable nurseries have only 42 left out of 132, which operate in deprived places that the New Economics Foundation calls childcare “deserts”.

To understand the government’s attitude, look closely at its language. Note how it calls it “childcare”: a babysitting service, not nursery or early-years education. Note how it never mentions children’s wellbeing: the chancellor’s budget speech spoke only of the economy’s “million vacancies”, the need for “tackling labour shortages” and getting more mothers back into work. “For many women, a career break becomes a career end,” he said. This is economics, not education or social policy.

Labour’s largely lost Sure Start programme led to the creation of 3,500 centres to nurture families and children and focus on child development. Research shows that a child’s critical first years all but determine their future: Sure Start aimed to narrow the gap between the most disadvantaged children and the rest before primary school. Sure Start centres were a haven for families with any problems, or just places for comfort, company and advice. There were health visitors too, as well as trained nursery teachers, parent-run drop-in cafes, parenting groups, English language classes and employment advice – but they were mostly swept away in 2010 by the brutal cuts of Michael Gove and George Osborne. Rather predictably, the educational gap between rich and poor children has widened since then.

Under this government, perversely, children of the most disadvantaged families don’t qualify for Jeremy Hunt’s free “childcare”. To be eligible, both parents – or the single parent – must work at least 16 hours a week. But that rules out many families with all manner of problems and obstacles whose children need early help the most – and ignores the evidence that underpins programmes such as Sure Start. US research followed poor children on an early-years programme for 30 years. Every $1 spent on intensive early support saved $16 later in life, as those children needed less social security or mental health care; and fewer committed crimes, with more of them in work and able to own their own homes.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Sure Start’s existence in the UK’s poorest areas led to a 19% drop in the probability of a child being hospitalised by age 11. The IFS also found that Sure Start had little impact on well-off children, which makes this government’s policy even more perverse: richer families are almost six times as likely to benefit from Hunt’s plan, according to a report by the New Economics Foundation.

Many nurseries under financial strain will also have to deal with higher labour costs from April 2024 when the minimum wage rises to £11.44 an hour. Carlyn Cole, manager of a small charitable nursery in Harold Hill, Romford, says five of her eight staff are on the minimum wage. Although she thinks they more than deserve this almost 10% rise, it will hit the nursery hard. “I’m only paid a bit above the minimum,” she says. “They’re hiring for Christmas in the local Aldi, and I’d get more on their checkout than as a manager here. But we all love the job, love the children, and we stayed open all through Covid to help key workers.”

She tots up the rise in energy and food costs – a threatened 60% rent rise imperils their survival. Open since 1981, the nursery has been a mainstay of the local community. “It’s a deprived area, where parents can’t pay extra,” says Cole. “And I don’t know where these children would go.” They used to take many special needs children, but can’t afford to now. Hunt will pay nurseries only £5.88 an hour for three and four-year olds, while two-year olds get £8.28 an hour.. The government’s way of easing the strain is to increase the legal ratio of children to staff. Now that it’s one carer to five two-year-olds, someone should take them to the chancellor’s office for him to try it for a day.

With the state projected to pay 80% of costs under Hunt’s proposals, the chaotic patchwork of private and voluntary nurseries needs reform as radical as the founding of the NHS. Private equity has moved into childcare but only in rich areas, cashing in on charging high rates for small babies the government doesn’t cover. The few remaining state-maintained nurseries have always been beacons of the highest quality, so the shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, plans new nurseries inside primary schools where falling numbers leave extra space. She’s keenly aware of the need to avoid Ofsted-driven “schoolification”, ensuring nurseries stay centred on child development and play.

Hunt has delayed rolling out all the free 30 hours, so the next government will have to pay. If money is tight, Labour should be more strictly guided than ever by the evidence: high-quality nurseries should get priority, even before needy schools and well before universities. That takes patience, as it will take years to prove that a good start at nursery yields better results. This time, Sure Start-quality nurseries must be embedded into the national psyche. To avoid future cuts they must become politically impossible for any future malign government to destroy. It is surely not a coincidence that the happiest countries, mostly in Scandinavia, have the highest quality nurseries.


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