By Fiona Millar
Where are the women in this election, or the debates about children, families, work life balance? The media fascination with ‘free schools’, and the focus on individual parents who want to start them, has crowded out too many other important issues that matter to all parents.
Most depressing has been the almost complete lack of attention to investment in the early years – widely acknowledged by everyone from Gordon Brown to former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith (whose Centre for Social Justice has been influential in Tory thinking) as being crucial to children’s chances of flourishing later in life.
Polly Toynbee’s article in the Guardian today ‘Wake up parents and shout about toddler top-up fees‘ will hopefully encourage more scrutiny of the Labour record and what might change in the future.
Toynbee’s article flags up the alarm we should all feel at Tory Children’s spokesman Michael Gove’s reluctance to rule out top-up fees for what is currently a free nursery entitlement for all 3 and 4 year olds.
The Conservative manifesto is equally vague. It talks about taking Sure Start back to its “original intention”, focussing it on the “neediest families” and introducing “payment by results”.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto doesn’t mention Sure Start at all but promises to protect existing childcare arrangements with a promise to extend free childcare to 20 hours a week from 18 months for every child, when the nation can afford it.
In fact, the early Sure Start principle was that that centres should be open to all or, as Toynbee says, “a great universal hub where families of every class and kind meet and mix to get any help they need”. Families move in and out of risky situations and services that are only for the poorest, most troubled families quickly become stigmatised.
Many Sure Start centres are now also childcare hubs for their local communities, so changes in the funding arrangements could lead to working parents – who rely on high quality local daycare centres – finding themselves out of pocket or without a service at all.
Labour is committed to increased spending on frontline early years services. The 3,500 Sure Start Centres will be protected; all 3 and 4 year olds will be entitled to 15 hours a week of flexible, free nursery education; that will be extended to all 2 year olds, starting with the most disadvantaged.
Investment in the early years is one of the most effective ways to iron out inequalities. Countless studies have now pointed to the speed with which bright children from poorer homes are leapfrogged by their better off peers when it comes to basic literacy and numeracy, before they even start primary school.
Coincidentally, the Institute for Fiscal Studies also produced a report this week ‘Radical or just radically vague?‘, which probes the education policies of all the main parties and notes the expansion of free nursery places and the introduction of Sure Start as being one of the achievements of the Labour government.
“The education system today is broader in scope and richer in resources than it was when Labour came to power. We have also seen a clear shift in funding priorities towards younger children, with the UK becoming one of the developed world’s biggest spenders on early years programmes”, it observes.
The IFS also claims that there is a “consensus” among all the three on the importance of early years. That may be true, but the devil is in the detail. Let’s hope parents get the chance to examine that before polling day.
This post was also published at The Truth About Our Schools.