Childcare policies 'can go further' to address concerns from industry experts like Tall Trees Kindergarten
The general election on 12th December is exactly one week away, with all three leading parties having unveiled their election manifestos. For those childcare providers working in the Early Years education sector, party policies on this issue have made for interesting reading in terms of how they propose to address concerns within the industry.
One nursery services provider from Frome, Somerset, discussed some of the challenges they have experienced in the Early Years provision system prior to the Conservatives, Labour party and Liberal Democrats launching their manifestos.
Tall Trees director, Emma Comer, raised some significant issues concerning financial provision for Early Years education in The Parliamentary Review. Interestingly, she emphasised that for all the extra funding that the parties may promise, a major concern for her was that the existing systems for claiming financial help toward childcare costs are too complex.
Comer said: “Every parent, whatever their financial position, wants the best for their child, and many families can take advantage of the government funding, tax credit and voucher schemes.
“On the issue of finance, however, we find that the systems in place for parents to claim nursery funding, as well as other sources of help, are too complex. The administration costs required to oversee them have therefore rocketed in recent years.
“Various early years organisations have been campaigning vigorously for the government to recognise the financial and administrative challenges in early years education.”
Another of Comer’s concerns is that the quality of childcare must be improved if it is to encourage more parents to return to work.
She said: “There is a government drive for the early years sector to provide cheap childcare, probably under the assumption that this will encourage more parents to work, therefore boosting the economy. This line of thinking is flawed, however, as many parents will not go back to work unless their children have the right childcare.
“Our families regularly tell us that they’re willing to pay a premium because this ensures that their children get the best possible experience. We have a diverse range of families that come to us.”
It does beg the question, therefore, as to exactly what party policies are offering.
The Conservatives’ new childcare policy is primarily focused on helping parents by making childcare available during the school holidays, an area which has previously been overlooked. The aim is to create 250,000 extra childcare places for primary school-age children, which amounts to approximately 5 per cent of that age-group in total, and would cost £250 million per year for three years.
Meanwhile, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are offering universal childcare policies with multi-billion pound investment.
Labour’s manifesto outlines a two-term vision to make high-quality early years education available to every child, with paid maternity leave extended to 12 months. Within five years, the party says that all two, three and four-year-olds will be entitled to 30 hours of free preschool education per week, with access to additional hours offered at affordable, subsidised rates which will be staggered according to income.
Labour’s policy certainly appears to tick a box in terms of proposing adequate funding, however, the quality of education that will ultimately be provided will be of vital importance if it is to encourage more parents to return to work, in accordance with Comer’s concerns.
The same issue applies to the Liberal Democrats’ policy. Jo Swinson’s party plans to extend free childcare to every child aged two to four, as well as for children aged between nine months and 24 months in circumstances where their parents or guardians are in work, to allow working parents to go back to work rather than having to look after their child.
Under Lib Dem proposals, the 30 hours a week of free childcare that the Conservatives offer will be extended to 35 hours per week for 48 weeks a year, with increased funding to cover the actual cost of nursery provision along with trebling the Early Years Pupil Premium to give extra help to disadvantaged children who risk falling behind their peers.
This is clearly a policy put forward from the point of view of finance with a positive and progressive focus on helping disadvantaged children, but once more, how this is borne out in the overall quality of education provided will be important.
If one were to look at how the party manifestos address Comer’s perspective on the complexities in the system for parents to claim financial help, Labour’s policy appears to go the furthest.
In Labour’s manifesto is a promise to address the complexities in the system by making it more simplified and sustainable for parents and providers, along with long-term funding to secure the future of maintained nursery schools which it believes are ‘under threat’ from public funding cuts under the Conservatives.
The Conservative policy’s emphasis on making childcare available in the holidays appears much more strategic, but much will depend on school premises being available during the summer holidays since school-based providers will be largely responsible for delivering these services.
On the whole, both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are offering better funded and more easily accessible childcare, yet whether this will culminate in high-quality education remains to be seen. Both parties have been clear in highlighting that parents having to choose between looking after their child and returning to work is a clear issue, with both blaming funding issues as the central problem. The quality of education that will provided still should not be overlooked here.
As for the complexities in the system that Comer criticises, it appears only Labour has earmarked addressing it as a clear component in their policy, though the Lib Dems may still offer further clarity on how their funding policy may make government help more easily accessible for parents.
However, despite this, there is room for both Labour and the Lib Dems to go further, as is the case with the Conservatives. One issue which Comer raised in the Review that each of the three parties appear to have overlooked in their manifestos is the lack of a ‘level playing field’ between private and school-based early years providers in terms of support received from the state in line with financial overheads.
Comer told The Parliamentary Review: “School-based settings can run on much lower ratios and do not have the same overheads [such as business rates] as the private early years sector and appear to receive more government support.
“We sincerely wish that the government would start to listen to, and place more value on, a sector that is so central to the economic development of our country and, most importantly, to the welfare and developmental potential of the next generation.”
Although each of the three party policies offer tangible progress in different aspects of Early Years provision, it is clear that all of them can go even further if they are to address some of the real concerns put forward by those in the sector.