We get it, the announcement yesterday had a number of issues and flaws. The funding pledged to the childcare and early years sector was absolutely not enough. It was estimated by economists that £1.85 billion was needed to bridge the funding gap for the current 3 and 4 year old entitlement. Yet only £208 million was offered leaving a huge shortfall. The roll out of the free entitlement will take time to implement, leaving parents who are struggling right now to continue wading through debt-inducing treacle.
There are also very viable questions as to whether, under the current plan, it is even feasible to roll out these new free entitlements as providers continue to close their doors due to a lack of Government funding and practitioners are leaving the workforce in droves. We will continue to work closely with provider groups, charities, business lobbies and others as part of the childcare and early years coalition to put pressure on the Government on all of these issues.
It wasn’t possible for new ‘free’ hours to be rolled out immediately, because the sector is in such a crisis that the supply isn’t there to cope with increased demand. We appreciate the frustration on this, but we have to be realistic about what is possible. It may not help you, right now, but it will help future families. And yes, unless the funding rate increases then more providers will close, and more early years educators will leave the workforce – so that is our next fight – an acceptance that their plan will not work without more investment.
HOWEVER, we need to pause and recognise how significant yesterday was. The fact that childcare and early years formed the most important part of the Chancellor’s Spring Budget is a sea change in the way this sector is recognised by those in power. That, in itself, is incredible. And the only way is up. Labour will be forced to beat this new offer as part of their manifesto for the general election. The Conservative Party will be forced to beat their own offer if they want to use it as an opportunity to win votes and further compete with Labour. We have changed the conversation – it is now widely recognised that childcare is critical infrastructure for the economy.
Change is never linear. It is messy and complicated and it will never please everyone all at once. Childcare and early years is complicated – no country has managed to get this exactly right. And it was clear yesterday that the priority was very much focussed on supporting mothers back to work, rather than the quality of early years education for our children – and we need both! We are way behind other countries in terms of cost, quality and accepting the critical role it plays for both our economy and for our children. This is a step towards the change we want to see – it is not everything we want – we have overcome the first major hurdle.
This is also an opportunity to celebrate mothers and our collective power. Straight after the budget yesterday PTS were invited to meet with the Minister for Education, Gillian Keegan and the Minister for Early Years, Claire Coutinho. They spent an hour talking to us about how parents had changed the political dialogue on childcare and early years. They gave us ample opportunity to ask questions about their plans and left the door open for further conversation. That would have been unheard of just two years ago. Yesterday we didn’t just hit a new milestone in solving the childcare crisis, we also proved that mothers really can change the world if we work together.
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