Interview - Tulip Siddiq, Shadow Early Years Minister

Monday, November 14, 2016

The shadow early years minister and MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, talks about Labour’s plans

What will be your priorities as the new shadow minister for early years?

Very simply, to do whatever I can to ensure that every child has the best start in life – and pressurising the Government to produce more family-friendly policies.

Early years education is at a crossroads, with the new funding formula causing real concern. Families are struggling with the soaring costs of childcare and many local providers face closure because they can’t meet the huge increases in running costs. Many are also anxious by the Government’s failing election promise to double free childcare to 30 hours per week. We already know that a far fewer number of families will be eligible, and the Government seems totally reluctant to provide the necessary funding.

When the Conservatives announced the extension of the free entitlement, they said 630,0000 three- and four-year-olds would be eligible. This was revised to 600,000. Following changes to the criteria, the Government now says that just 390,000 families will benefit.

The recent figures you obtained through the House of Commons Library reveal a decline in providers and places between September 2009 and August 2015. What do you think are the main causes?

Cuts to local government funding have accelerated the pace at which registered providers are being forced to close. Since 2009, there have been more than 8,000 fewer providers and more than 45,000 fewer childcare places. These are very worrying decreases.

Do you think delivering on the 30 hours of free childcare is possible?

Not the way this Government is performing. Its decision to withhold proper funding for nurseries means the promise will push many to the brink. The Government has now decided to spend £3m on hiring two consultancy firms to try and dig it out of the hole. Expect more spin in the next few months. I will be holding them to account for the consistent failure and chaos regarding the 30-hour promise.

Providers do not believe the promise can be kept without the necessary funding. A number of other factors, including recruitment, planning restrictions and shared use of buildings all add to the difficulties providers face. The Government must take a holistic approach to early years, but serious investment will be required.

Does the funding threaten the survival of nurseries and nursery schools?

Yes. This not scaremongering – it’s basic mathematics. The Government acknowledges nursery schools face additional costs, due to statutory commitments, yet deny them the investment needed. It should immediately commit to funding beyond the two years to guarantee nursery schools in the most deprived areas have a long-term future.

You asked for feedback on the local authorities piloting the 30 hours…

Disappointingly, the early years minister confirmed to me that formal findings of the pilots will not be published until July. Waiting until just one month before the national roll-out means the Government, local authorities and providers can’t seriously be expected to learn from the pilots. It’s just not good enough.

I have particular concerns over whether funding rates being used in the pilots will be the same once the new formula kicks in. The sector deserves better than a bogus evaluation that paints a false picture. I have spoken to a number of settings in the pilot areas and they have expressed legitimate concerns, which were highlighted in the consultation responses – including the need to subsidise the offer from paying parents.

You’ve warned that the new national funding formula could force more nurseries to close. Why is this?

The funding formula is just one part of a triple-whammy of challenges facing childcare providers. Over one quarter of local authorities will lose money, while being asked to double the childcare entitlement. As far as we know, they will not receive any supplementary funding beyond the two years. Nurseries have been clear that this cocktail of funding pressures will ultimately push them into an unsustainable financial situation.

What are your thoughts on the new Tax-Free Childcare scheme?

Unfortunately, this scheme seems to have been poorly communicated, frustrated twice by Government delays, and it may not even help support the families who need it most. Research by Sodexo has indicated that the scheme will only deliver for those on high incomes. This is a wasted opportunity to address the root cause of mounting childcare costs, not least for those struggling the most.

What should happen with the GCSE requirement for Level 3 practitioners?

There needs to be a pragmatic approach to recruitment in early years. Academic qualifications are important in producing a high-quality workforce, but the Government has also failed to support the existing workforce to access CPD or higher-level qualifications.

The Tories have ignored this area for too long, and though the forthcoming consultation is a positive step, it is important that as many practitioners as possible have their say. The areas of greatest deprivation will feel the effects of fewer qualified staff more acutely. The Government must listen to professionals, invest in early years, and tackle the current recruitment crisis.

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