The Chancellor had some tough decisions to make today to drive the Government’s Levelling Up agenda and prepare the country for a post-Covid “age of optimism”.
Whilst we know he needs to balance this with good financial management that pays off some of the huge debt incurred by the pandemic, this should not mean we get the poor to pay for the country’s spiralling debt.
Like many of you, I was encouraged to see that Mr Sunak placed support for childcare and Early Years at the heart of his Budget and Spending Review – acknowledging that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life – from conception to their second birthday – are critical and require more support. He also recognised that spending on childcare helps parents back into the workplace and a boost for the economy – something which I’ve been banging the drum about for years!
So, whilst I welcome many of Sunak’s promises such as confirming that £300m will go towards “A Start for Life offer” for families, offering parenting programmes and help with perinatal mental health, an extra £82m funding to help create a network of Family Hubs around the country plus £150m to support and train those who work in Early Years (and more funding for holiday and activity programmes), we must not lose sight of how very important childcare is for the country’s infrastructure.
This is very unlikely to make a dent in the shortfall which was identified by the Early Years Alliance at £2.60 a child and I doubt whether it will reduce the cost of childcare for parents or make life any easier for the many small providers operating in areas of disadvantage trying to balance the increased costs of staffing. It’s not good either for those staff who are less likely to benefit from the training that enables them to deliver a high-quality service. This is a missed opportunity to try and level up those children already hammered by disadvantage.
The inability for parents to access childcare during Covid-19 while trying to work from home was significant and continues to be problematic. The cost of childcare is high because the current funding system is not fit for purpose. Underfunding by previous governments has meant that every cost increase is borne by parents in their fees. I think this budget won’t change our position as one of the most expensive childcare services in Europe when effective funding could ease this burden and create sliding payment scales that make it more affordable (and accessible) for all parents.
We also know that children living in poverty (currently 1 in 4 across the country) suffer when they cannot access high quality childcare and education. There is a raft of new reports which continue to show that the support from good nurseries and childcare settings makes a significant difference cognitively, socially and physically to a child’s future education and life success. Our soon to be released LEYF research entitled, Doubling Down confirms this.
Now, with his budget successfully delivered and his red briefcase firmly shut, the ask of the Chancellor is that he thinks seriously about wrapping funds around affordability, accessibility and quality. If he ‘did the math’, he would find the tax receipts he gets from working parents (from all backgrounds) more than pays for the funding support so desperately needed. What’s more, this would help fund the training necessary for staff to ensure they can deliver the quality early childcare and education necessary to support our future generations.
The Early Years sector is just as important as schools, yet no one queries the cost of them so why not put Early Years on the same footing? I am not convinced that this budget has placed every child at the heart of it by providing the real cost of investment. By doing so, it could make a huge difference to the country’s growth and prosperity in years to come and most importantly, put our future citizens right at the centre.