Childcare policy 20 years on

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Caroline Flint, who set up the first cross-party group for childcare, and was one of 101 Labour women MPs elected 20 years ago next month, reflects on the dramatic changes to early years policy since 1997.


Caroline Flint MP: 'The collective impact of the 101 Labour women - including many young parents - arriving in parliament was a sea change in our party's policy.'

When I arrived as a newly elected Labour MP in 1997, there were hundreds of all party parliamentary groups covering subjects like caravans and beer but not one on childcare.

Having been chair of Working for Childcare (formerly the Workplace Nurseries Campaign) I established the first APPG for Childcare. Twenty years later the House of Commons has certainly improved as a family-friendly employer for the thousands of people who work there.

But wider than the Palaces of Westminster has been the dramatic change in support for early years education and childcare across the UK. 

The collective impact of the 101 Labour women - including many young parents - arriving in parliament was a sea change in our party's policy. Traditional opposition to a minimum wage had been replaced by support for it; we developed policy on paid maternity leave; equal pay; and childcare.

The goals for early years policy were threefold: improving the education and the outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds; removing the barriers to women gaining work or training to boost the UK labour force; reducing child poverty.

Labour provided a universal entitlement to early years education, a childcare infrastructure, and a parental expectation that was impossible to reverse. In doing so, it developed both a curriculum for pre-school education and a trained workforce for delivering it. To lead the national childcare strategy, Margaret Hodge MP was appointed as the first minister for children, a post that continues to this day.

The impact was dramatic: in 1994 only five per cent of under-fives were in nursery schooling. By 2010 the figure had soared to 94 per cent of three- and four-year-olds, allowing more women to go to work. Expansion of childcare places was equally dramatic, peaking at 838,000 in 2008, up 36-fold from its 1997 level. These policies were not cheap, but government research showed that every extra woman entering the workforce was saving £20,000 a year in benefits to society.

The introduction of childcare tax credits, alongside a new deal for lone parents; changed the relationship with parents who were largely on benefits, with few skills. While their children learned social skills, women were gaining work-related skills. By 2002 the proportion of women at work had risen to a record 69.5 per cent.

By 2010, the proportion of lone parents in the workforce was at a record high. Labour’s childcare and early years policies were central to this social change. Active welfare to work policies could not have worked without the childcare component, something that previous Tory governments had failed to grasp, but no government will ever lose sight of again. Twenty years ago, childcare and family policy would never have been central campaign policies for the two main parties; the fact that they are now is down to Labour.

At the 2015 general election, Labour offered 25 hours free childcare to working parents of three- and four-year olds (including 15 hours of existing nursery education), fully costed. The Tories pledged 30 hours (in addition to the 15 existing hours) to an estimated 600,000 households. Although the Tory’s trumped Labour’s offer but neither really felt part of an intergrated childcare offer, especially when the Tories tightened their criteria reducing the numbers to 390,000, and so the cost. Nearly two years on from this manifesto pledge, the Tories are now not delivering this promise and instead creating uncertainty in the early years system. 

Whilst the amount of support to families with childcare costs has increased, for many it is still too expensive and bureaucratic. Many childcare providers are being asked by the state to double the hours of nursery education without being fully funded. The danger of this development is that private nurseries risk closure or parents face greater costs. This could result in some nurseries refusing to take children for the free 30 hours, resulting in a divisive two-tier nursery system.

Early years education is now embedded in both our school and childcare system.

Childcare tax credits, and their successor under universal credit, underpinning childcare costs, have survived. Sure Start has been undermined by the coalition and Tory governments but children’s centres are still hanging on, though with only a shadow of their previous reach and capacity. Nearly 800 centres have closed since 2010.

The past seven years have seen a stalling and fragmentation, a withering of initiative as a result of lack of government ambition reinforced by the constraints on spending after the global economic crash.

Labour’s challenge remains to refine and extend this agenda to fulfil the social purpose we identified in 1997 of combatting poverty and inequality and improving the life chances of every child.

Childcare and family-friendly policies must respond to new pressures in a labour market that for many is more insecure than it was 20 years ago. Paid paternity leave, the right to request flexible hours and the move to shared parental leave all play their part in creating a more equal and balanced role between parents, although in reality, women still juggle the lion’s share of parental and domestic duties.

As public policy-makers focus on creating a modern industrial strategy where does childcare provision sit? Should it be an infrastructure priority along with broadband, housing and transport? Will future skills shortages post-Brexit require more women to enter the jobs market?

Caroline Flint MP has written a contribution for the new Fabian Society book This Woman Can: 1997, women and Labour published today.

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