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Childcare funding in times of Austerity: Historical lessons for the Childcare Bill 2015-2016

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Recognising that good-quality education and care in their earliest years can help children succeed at school and later in life, the current government is seeking to increase the number of children entitled to free childcare and the number of funded hours they receive. The Childcare Bill 2015-2016, which has been making its way through parliament, aims to secure the delivery of 30 hours a week of funded childcare for working parents of three- and four‑year‑olds and ensure that local authorities publish information about available local childcare for parents and carers.

However history shows that in times of economic constraint it has often been the under-fives that have seen their services cut. The current situation, whereby Conservative-controlled Oxfordshire County Council is seeking to close all its children’s centres (which are hubs providing many services for young children and their families), despite outcry from local residents, including the Prime Minister himself, has historical precedent. Both today and in the past many services for the under-fives have been discretionary, with no legal requirement on the local councils to provide them, and in consequence they have been vulnerable to cuts.

For over a hundred years services for the under-fives have suffered both from the reluctance of governments of all political persuasions to invest in childcare and early years’ education, and from the division of responsibility for such services between national and local government and between different government departments. Consequently, they have often been the first services to be cut in times of economic crises.

For example, in the 1929 election, Labour included the wide provision of nursery schools in its policy outline. After it was returned, the new government sent out a circular to local authorities giving them strong encouragement to open nursery schools. Nine new nursery schools were opened in 1930, with plans for many more. However, the promised expansion was  curtailed by the demands of economy, resulting from the financial crisis of the following year.

During the last years of the Second World War plans were again made for large-scale nursery provision. However, these proposals were not translated into post-war policy, with nursery education left in an ambiguous position under the 1944 Education Act: because it was not mandatory, some local education authorities believed they could avoid providing nursery education.

In 1972, hopes for universal nursery provision were again raised when Margaret Thatcher, as Minister of Education, produced a white paper recommending the wholesale increase of nursery education for all three- and four-year-olds whose parents wished them to have them. It was expected that by 1980 there would be nursery school places for 50 per cent of three-year-olds and 90 per cent of four-year-olds. Optimism quickly faded, though, as another economic crisis arose. After Labour was returned in the 1974 election, Anthony Crosland, Secretary of State for the Environment with responsibility for local government, famously told local authorities on the 9 May 1975 that ‘the party is over’. Central government funding available for the nursery education building programme for 1975–76 was almost half that of the previous year.

The late 1990s and early 2000s was another moment of promise. In 1998 the New Labour government launched the first National Childcare Strategy, which aimed to deliver quality, affordable and accessible childcare in every neighbourhood. As part of the strategy they launched Sure Start, an area-based initiative which sought to improve childcare, early education, health and family support, with an emphasis on outreach and community development. From 2004 Sure Start programmes were succeeded by Sure Start Children’s Centres. In addition, from 1998 all four-year-olds in England were entitled to a free place in a maintained school reception class from the September following their fourth birthday. In 2004 this was extended to all three-year-olds. Early-years services formed an important part of the 2010-2015 coalition government’s family policy with the coalition agreement supporting the provision of free nursery care and the launch of a free nursery scheme for disadvantaged two-year-olds. However, this scheme was to be financed at the expense of Sure Start, with plans to close more than 125 Sure Start children’s centres

The current Conservative government wants to increase the number of children receiving early years’ care and education, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. However the Childcare Bill 2015-2016, which was based upon a Conservative manifesto to increase the number of funded childcare hours, has already attracted controversy. In the summer of 2015 Sky News reported that childcare providers were concerned that parents’ expectations were being raised unrealistically as current subsidies did not cover nurseries’ actual costs.

That autumn The Guardian noted the number of families who will benefit from the bill had been cut by a third as a result of cost-saving changes outlined by George Osborne in the spending review on 25 November 2015. Under the original terms of the offer, as many as 600,000 families were said to benefit, but only 390,000 families will now be able take advantage of the scheme. An upper income limit of £100,000 per parent has been set (families which include a parent earning above this figure will not be eligible to receive the free hours) and parents will now qualify only if they work at least sixteen hours a week, up from the eight hours previously stipulated.

History shows us that this tension between the desire to expand free early years’ care and education for two- to four-year-olds and concerns over how it will be funded is in fact nothing new. It has long been recognised that investing in the early years’ will be good for children, families and the country as a whole. However agreeing who will finance these services has proved difficult. The responsibility for early years’ provision remains divided between government agencies of health, education, social services and communities; improved child care provision is every politician’s aspiration, yet no one’s responsibility.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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