As Parliament reopens for the Queen’s speech, all eyes are on whether the Prime Minister can secure a deal with his counterparts in Brussels to exit the European Union by the end of October. If he cannot get the backing from both the UK Parliament and the EU, a general election could be called within a matter of days.
The party conferences offered parties one final opportunity to set out their priorities for education before potentially committing them into their manifestos ahead of an election. And Labour were certainly in pre-election mode. Beneath their headline-grabbing pledge to close down all private schools were other interesting proposals to reinvigorate Sure Start through creating a ‘Sure Start Plus’ model and to introduce free early education for all two- to four-year-olds.
As with most party conference pledges, there remains a lack of detail about implementation and funding, but both are important if Government is to learn from mistakes of the past and create a sustainable offer in the early years.
As a former teenage parent, the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner says that ‘Sure Start changed [her] life’. But, as I’ve argued here before, the lessons from the National Evaluation of Sure Start need to be considered alongside any rebuilding of the programme.
And while free early education for all two- to four-year-olds is likely to be an attractive proposition to voting parents, the early years infrastructure needs to be much stronger than it is now.
While the early years was a flagship feature of Labour’s education speech at conference, it featured little in the Liberal Democrats’ speech and not at all in the Conservatives’. But both parties have made, very different, pledges in recent months. The Conservatives have pledged to spend an additional £66 million next year on the free entitlement, although this only covers inflation and does not represent a real-terms increase in early years budgets. The Liberal Democrats have pledged to increase the Early Years Pupil Premium to £1,000 and to improve the qualifications of the workforce.
If an election is called soon, we may well see more pledges from the main parties. Childcare has typically been a battleground in securing the votes of ordinary families. The challenge will, as ever, be ensuring that the debate is focused on quality, sustainability and impact rather than short-term vote-winners.