Politicians forgot to ask what good childcare actually looks like

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Nine years ago, a Conservative minister had the happy job of explaining to me why Ed Miliband’s sums didn’t add up. The policy in question from the Labour leader was a commitment to expand the ‘free’ childcare hours each parent receives. This promised cash injection was, the critic persuasively argued, far below what nurseries and day care centres needed to stay open. Unfortunately, the voters weren’t convinced, and a couple of weeks later the same minister had to explain to me why David Cameron’s proposal to provide even more hours for the same amount of money did, in fact, add up.

They were right the first time. The story of British childcare policy since then is one of predictable consequences: according to the Early Years Alliance, government pays nurseries well below what it costs to actually provide an hour of free childcare. As a result, many providers are at risk of collapse, and the rest resort to all sorts of trickery to claw the missing money back from parents, whether via overpriced lunches or exorbitant prices for age groups and times not covered by the ‘free’ hours.

A lot has changed in the UK in the past nine years, not least that almost everyone feels a lot poorer and a lot grumpier. But the essential dynamics of childcare politics remain the same: policy, and the money earmarked to fund it, is shaped by combat between the parties rather than an appreciation of the costs involved, or even much sense of what “good childcare” looks like. Is it about skilling up the next generation early? Closing inequality gaps by helping children whose parents have less money or social capital? Or is it about providing extended babysitting?

Jeremy Hunt is the latest politician to play the game: his commitment to “free” childcare from the age of nine months is in large part about his party’s battle with Labour. Once again, the amount of money earmarked is below what many providers say it will actually costs. It may be that the UK now “provides free childcare” in the same sense it criminalises burglary, bicycle theft or illegal drugs: the state’s function is exercised in theory rather than in practice an awful lot of the time.

Nonetheless, it makes the UK the latest state in the rich world to provide, or at least purport to provide, near-universal childcare. Two countries have been particularly influential here: Finland with its long-running success in education and Estonia, where all early years teachers must have at least an undergraduate degree, and which has particularly influenced Labour’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson.

The UK’s entry into this club is a headache for Labour because it robs them of their hoped-for dividing line on childcare. But it is also an ideological achievement because Hunt’s rationale and the tools he is using look more like the ones Labour has traditionally reached for.

This is childcare policy designed to allow more parents to work for longer rather than stay at home. Social conservatives are right to think that Hunt’s approach is much more similar to the world as envisaged by the opposition than the one they would prefer. But neither party has yet provided a credible answer on how much money their ambition takes.

We know that teacher quality, more than anything else, shapes educational outcomes. Most British childcare is not aiming to achieve similar performance, and therefore doesn’t. And despite the fact the state spends the OECD average on childcare, upfront costs to parents are nowhere near the OECD average.

In addition to remaining wildly optimistic about the financing of all this, neither party has put forward much detail about what, exactly, they think ‘good childcare’ is. Is the current workforce, made up largely of people on the apprenticeship wage or minimum wage, fit for purpose? Or should governments have a plan to improve nursery staff’s qualifications? To what extent should the new reception baseline assessment — which measures the literacy, language and numeracy skills of children when they start school — become an assessment measure for childcare providers?

A debate about staff qualifications, drawing on best practice elsewhere and echoing initiatives like TeachFirst, might favour the Labour party. One that focuses on the latter, reflecting Conservative preoccupations such as academic rigour and accountability, might favour the Tories. But as both parties wonder how they can get on the front foot, leading the way on what a good childcare model might actually look like is certainly better than competing promises that are long on ambition but short on money or detail.

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Source: Financial Times

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