“The only solution to this developing crisis is substantial state intervention. Childcare should be seen as a right based on need, as it is Scandinavian countries”
By Lizzy Ali
The cost-of-living crisis has had a severe impact, for both parents with young children, and for those who would like to have children but can’t afford it. The average age of mothers at the birth of their first child in England and Wales has risen steadily from 23.7 years in 1971 to 29.1 years in 2020.
This is unsustainable for the future, and contributes to the problems of an ageing society.
There are clearly several drivers to this, including access to contraception and changing attitudes to marriage, but right now the two biggest factors are the cost of renting or buying property and the lack of affordable quality childcare.
Between 2021 and 2022, 7.7% of private early years providers closed down. More than a third of maintained nursery schools in England have closed since 1980. Changes to the early years funding formula five years ago have accelerated nursery school closures because it is cheaper to employ unqualified staff in other types of early years settings.
A 2021 report from London Mayor Sadiq Khan showed that two thirds of nurseries in London were at risk of closure. Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF) notes that “under the Tories there are two children for every early years childcare place in England”, and according to the children’s charity Coram, the average cost of full-time nursery childcare in England for a child under two is now nearly £15,000 per year.
As the report notes, there are now “four million children living in poverty”.
Whether or not the final year NPF policy documents shared with CLPs in May will form the basis of the next manifesto remains to be seen. If they do, anyone looking for radical ideas for early years childcare and education is going to be disappointed.
Academic research demonstrates the value of nursery education – as opposed to simple childcare – and particularly for disadvantaged children. Yet there is no mention in the NPF document of reversing nursery school closures and cuts to Sure Start, or of restoring previously state-funded day care provision. Nor is there any mention of children whose carers are not working, who currently only qualify for 15 hours’ childcare per week.
The NPF document states: “We want a broad and rich set of opportunities for every child in their early years and around the school day, supported by a childcare system that runs from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school”. But parents, and particularly younger parents, need more than warm words.
Subsequent to this, in a clear attempt to manage down expectations, a Labour spokesperson announced that “An expansion of childcare to all children is not Labour’s policy”, but left the door ajar for ‘a means-tested offer’.
It is clear that the private sector is unable to fulfill the demand in terms of the number of places or the cost and quality of provision for all that need it. The NPF document states: “A Labour government will remove the barriers that prevent local councils from opening more nurseries and childcare provision when parents need it”. This is welcome, as is the commitment to breakfast clubs in primary schools, but too much else is vague, along with the tendency to treat ‘childcare’ and ‘education’ interchangeably.
The only solution to this developing crisis is substantial state intervention. Childcare should be seen as a right based on need, as it is Scandinavian countries, rather than an ‘offer’. These rights should be nailed down, rather than non-statutory, as is the case at the moment. And, as has been seen with youth services, non-statutory services are always the first to be cut.
Nursery provision is, and always has been, a class issue, because the rich will always be able to provide adequately for their children. Nurseries were pioneered by socialists including Robert Owen, Margaret McMillan and Sylvia Pankhurst, and we should be proud of their achievements. Sure Start was a genuine Labour success story that has been trashed by successive Tory governments.
There needs to be urgent and radical reform of the entire early years sector.
- Lizzy Ali is Vice Chair of Leyton and Wanstead CLP, and Co-chair of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD).
- This article was originally published in the special 50th anniversary edition of Campaign Briefing, Read the full magazine here.
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