The MP was reflecting on her time as children’s minister under the Labour Government at a joint event in London hosted by the Resolution Foundation and the Family and Childcare Trust, which looked back at the 2004 ten-year childcare strategy.
The MP also acknowledged that Labour should have put more childcare in schools, rather than in new buildings.
During a wide-ranging speech she said, ‘The sensible policy direction would have been to locate more and more of our childcare offer in schools rather than build other buildings. ‘
This was ‘partly because it would be more sustainable, partly because it would make better use of valuable community assets and where people feel comfortable and partly because it brings the influence of the education community to bear on the quality of childcare provision.’
Another thing that the Government got wrong, she said, was to abolish the presumption against publicly provided services.
The Childcare Act had put local authorities as ‘childcare market managers’ and pulled local authorities out of developing their own services.
She was not against ‘diversity or choice’, but ‘having more publicly run services would support the raising of quality and choice for parents and raise the standards.’
The MP and chair of the Public Accounts Committee also urged the Government to re-direct spending on higher education to early years, because it would change the life chances of more children, and agreed with the Family and Childcare Trust’s argument that more money should be directed to supply-side funding.
Ms Hodge acknowledged that on reflection Labour had moved too quickly towards a universal offer for three-and four-year-olds.
The first priority should be the child and those children that are most in need, whether disadvantaged or disabled children, she said.
‘If you’re focusing on those that need it it’s more important that you prioritise quality.
‘We were so anxious to establish this new frontier of the welfare state, to universalise it and get the buy-in from middle-class parents that we lost the focus on children and families and those that needed it most,’ she said.
‘We tried to grow too quickly to the universal offer and we should have focused more on excellence and those that should benefit most from excellence.’
She said, ‘As I look forward on the two-year-old offer I would say hold your horses, concentrate on getting it right for the children and families and those that need it most.’
She also pointed out that that offering two-year-old places had been an initial commitment from Labour.
Ms Hodge also said that there had been a move away from the way the free hours had changed over time.
‘Its original intention was to provide the free offer of high-quality nursery education to all three- and four-year-olds and not to provide free childcare for working mothers. Although we wanted to provide some choice for parents, condensing that in two days because you’re working two days a week and you need the support for childcare costs does not best serve the interests of children and families.’
Looking back at the Every Child Matters agenda that was also established during her time, the MP said that Labour had wanted 'to construct and build services around the needs of children and families’.
Children's centres were about putting children and family at the heart of community and ‘a new way of working between health, care and education’, which was ‘seamless’ and ‘not in silos’.
She said that she felt that ‘a lot of that has gone and I feel sad about that. It was a massive cultural professional shift we were striving towards.'
At the event, which looked back at Labour’s 2004 childcare strategy and aimed to identify key policy lessons for the future, Ms Hodge also highlighted the need to focus on graduate-led settings.
The former children’s minister also emphasised the need for ‘better qualified, higher-status staff to reflect the value and status that we give on this part of children’s lives.
She said that it was ‘pretty awful’ that three out of four nursery managers were not graduates.
‘It’s not about elitist university education, but about professionalism and about the status we as a society give to the early years offer.’
She pointed to the success of nursery schools, which she said always come top on providing the best outcomes for children and families.
This showed the need to have graduates ‘being active and present and more often leading settings.’
‘I don’t agree with Liz Tuss when she says a teacher is a teacher wherever they work. Why is it that a teacher working in an early years setting gets paid less than a teacher in a primary or a secondary setting?
‘The skills that you require to work with children in the early years are not the same as teaching an A Level course or even teaching in primary.’
Looking back on her time as children’s minister, Margaret Hodge said she didn’t mind getting older because, ‘When I’m no longer shackled to climbing greasy poles it means you can say it much more as it is.’
She said that she agreed there had been enormous advances since she became an MP 20 years ago.
‘The political profile and the rhetoric on the importance of early years and childcare has been completely transformed in 20 years. Could you have ever thought Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, every Prime Minister puts childcare now at the heart of the political narrative. It’s in the legislative programme and manifesto commitments regularly have promises around childcare.’
She spoke about the rapid growth of childcare under the Labour Government, pointing to places created for 1.8m children, 3,500 children’s centres, better maternity rights, and the right to request flexible working.
She also said that it was important to prioritise what childcare was for – whether it was the best start for children, nurture or education, equalising life chances, supporting women into work, cutting welfare bill or building strong communities.
While childcare policy was about all of those areas, she said, ‘I don’t think we ever defined clearly enough where our priorities lay.’
‘I think as you look forward to the next decade we need to think clearly about what it is we want to do and why. For me the first priority would actually be children.’