The Government has recently set out a hugely ambitious expansion of early childcare. From 2025 they have committed to providing 30 hours of free childcare for children from nine months to five years old. This will be enormously welcome to many families. When I carried out my independent Family Review, and spoke to parents and carers around the country, one of the things they were most worried about was being able to afford childcare.
At the same time changes have been made to the rules about the number of children that can be cared by one person, with further flexibilities being consulted on at the moment. It is vital to make sure that this doesn’t weaken the quality of care provided, and that staff have the right training and support to deliver the best possible care.
Government must look closely at the recommendations from the recent Education Select Committee report, which makes practical suggestions about ensuring that the expansion of subsidised places can be delivered in practice, and that sufficient training and tailored qualifications are made available.
Too often the debate about childcare is cast as being about a tension between what parents need, and what babies and young children need, as if they exist in isolation from one another. But, of course, what is needed is a system that works for families – one that never compromises on quality, that is accessible and affordable, and flexible to the reality of family life.
That is one of the reasons I want to see more schools opening up nursery spaces. Many schools have space available as the number of children enrolled has fallen. Schools sit at the heart of communities, and are known and trusted by families already.
I want to make sure that the ambition of the offer of extended childcare hours is met by an equal ambition about ensuring that offer is high quality. One important element of this will be to make sure that we are able to measure children’s development in the earliest years, so we can understand what is working, and identify if any additional help is needed.
I also want all children to have a consistent childhood identifier so that early education providers and health services can more easily work together. New parents in some areas are now getting a digital ‘red book’ to keep track of their child’s health; this should link up to the information about their early education so everything is in one place.
Of course the quality of early education will always come down to those providing it. These professionals perform one of the most important roles of all, caring for children in their very earliest years and helping to shape the people they will become. We must do all we can to retain and support the wonderful nursery staff, childminders, and others working in early education.