Universal free childcare could be truly transformational – Labour must back it


As Boris Johnson leaves office and the Tories elect a new leader, nothing could demonstrate the government’s failure to ‘level up’ more than one of the last announcements of his premiership: the proposal to reduce the ratios in early years settings as a way to cut childcare costs. 

Research by Pregnant then Screwed and Mumsnet shows that 62% of parents say childcare costs exceed their rent or mortgage. And a freedom of information request by the Early Years Alliance revealed that the government is knowingly underfunding the 30 hours ‘free’ childcare offer, leaving providers to plug the gap. Meanwhile, members of the workforce cite low pay as a key driver for leaving the sector, with the average hourly wage of the mainly female workforce just £7.42 in 2020.

These facts speak for themselves; the early years sector is broken. Parents can’t afford it, nurseries can’t afford to provide it and staff are undervalued when their job involves the care and early education of our youngest children at a vital stage in their development.

The Tories’ plan to solve all this by allowing each adult in a childcare setting to care for more children misses the huge opportunities that real investment in early years offers. Labour has recognised this in its criticism of the proposals and has committed to more investment in early education and childcare. This is good news – but why not go further and bring in universal free childcare, giving every child a guarantee of a place in an early years setting from, say, six months old, so all families know that the opportunity is there for their children if they want to take it?

A policy of universal free childcare may seem so far removed from the current set-up as to be unrealistic. But serious economic, as well as social, arguments can be made for such a policy. Creating an early years sector that is well funded and secure and can provide high-quality education and care would be an investment in the country’s future that pays dividends both in the here and now and the long term, as work by the Women’s Budget Group has shown.

A reformed early years sector with investment to provide universal free childcare would benefit children, families (particularly mothers) and the economy locally and nationally. If Labour brought this into its children’s recovery plan, it could be truly transformational. 

Valuing early years staff in the same way as staff in schools is the first step. This means paying them in line with their training and responsibility, in the same way that teachers and support staff in state schools are paid. This would help to tackle the staff retention issues that providers identify, where graduate early years educators leave to work in local supermarkets for better pay. And it would provide job recognition and security that would attract more people into the profession, which is overwhelmingly female.

These well-paid jobs would be located in every community, in every part of the country. This means more money in pockets and more money spent in the local economy. Not only that, but it also means less in-work poverty, less reliance on Universal Credit and fewer costs related to poverty such as mental health that are ultimately passed on to the tax-payer.

Young children would benefit from being in settings that are not stretched and can focus fully on their development. This will improve their early experiences, and they’ll start school ready to access the curriculum. Again, the economic benefits will be felt for years to come, with reduced costs to the education system and improved life chances post-18; and the resultant better qualified workforce, reduced welfare and increased tax revenues. The children who benefit most will be the most disadvantaged: it’s an investment at the very beginning of a child’s life that will give the solid foundations for later success. 

Parents unencumbered by sky-high childcare fees can make decisions about whether to return to work after having children based on their own family’s needs. This will get more women back to work or choosing to return to higher-paid jobs after having children rather than seeking lower-paid part-time work. The next Labour government will be pro-worker and pro-business. Giving workers genuine support with childcare when their children are young helps businesses retain staff and plan ahead with certainty.

This is long-sighted investment that only a Labour government can deliver. Whether it’s the NHS or SureStart, only Labour governments have truly understood that problems need more than just a sticking-plaster approach. When Labour is bold and takes the long view, it really does transform people’s lives and society as a whole.

Children have a better start, women get a fair shot at their careers, well-paid secure jobs in every community – sounds a lot like levelling up.

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