As 2017 draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on how education policy has changed over the past year.
The early years agenda has been dominated by 30 hours. While the Government has waxed lyrical about the policy, providers have had to grapple with implementing it. And while take-up has been high for families on the highest income band, it has had a far smaller effect for those on the lowest incomes.
Those findings are unsurprising given the complex arrangements that many providers are putting in place. A number of providers recently told me they are charging for ‘extras’ including lunch and other top-up fees. One emailed me with several spreadsheets and information to parents about how its new fees are calculated, and I’m not ashamed to admit it was all utterly bamboozling. What is clear is that ‘free’ 30 hours childcare isn’t really free at all.
In my first column back in February, I said I was determined to ensure that narrowing the gap in the early years is ‘firmly on the Government’s agenda’. The Government is now about to publish its long-awaited social mobility strategy, but it is unlikely to include any new funding or game-changing policies for the early years. The strategy is more likely to be a knitting-together of existing announcements, including targeted literacy programmes and early parenting support pilots.
If it really wants to tackle social mobility, the Government needs to do more than a few small-scale initiatives. It has been over a year since the Prime Minister said she wanted to tackle the ‘burning injustices’ facing our country, yet very little has actually been done.
The chair and other commissioners of the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission have recently resigned, stating that they have little faith that the Government will make any real progress in securing a fairer Britain. The Commission may have a point. We estimate that it will take around 50 years for the disadvantage gap to close. But that doesn’t take into account the implications of Brexit on growth and productivity, welfare reforms and the ongoing pressures on public services. Add all those factors into the mix and who knows how long we will be waiting before we achieve true equality in education.