If the past year's discussion is anything to go by, we can expect very little in the way of vision or
strategy. Here are the four strategic messages that I want to hear.The first is a simple restatement of the purpose of childcare, which is inevitably twofold: to support child development, particularly of the least well off, and to enable parents who choose to work to do so. Too many debates attempt to disaggregate these objectives.
Accepting my first message necessitates a greater focus on quality. So to message two: a restatement of our commitment to graduate-led childcare. In the short term, politicians should find additional investment to restart the Graduate Leader Fund. Over time, we need to review funding structures to shift towards a system more like New Zealand that funds providers in bands according to quality.
This brings me to my third message. A review of our funding system is long overdue. A recent paper for the Resolution Foundation highlighted a critical difference between the way we fund childcare and what others who rely on a mix of providers do: everyone else places far more conditions on the receipt of public funding than we do. New Zealand links funding to quality, for example, while Norway regulates profits and out-of-pocket spending by parents. On top of this, few other countries have the complexity of funding streams that we are about to create with the introduction of tax-free childcare. Arguably, a single, means-tested system of subsidies on top of a redesigned free entitlement more closely linked to quality would be clearer and more efficient.
On to my fourth message: the market needs a manager. The choices of parents as consumers don't drive up quality or keep down prices. This means local authorities need to play a role in stimulating, sustaining and improving the market. Cuts to funding have almost entirely eliminated their market management role.
The most likely message we will hear is the first, but you need all four to call it a strategy.