At the time of writing this, the 30-hour offer had just launched amid a whirlwind of media activity, with both the press and the general public seemingly finally waking up to the scale of the problems facing the government’s flagship childcare policy.
For once, the headlines were not just about parents and their struggles with rising childcare costs, but also providers and the impossible situation they are being put in by government. A hugely positive development, of course – and yet I could not help but notice that there was one group still missing from all this coverage – children. From the very launch of this flawed policy, the lack of focus on its impact on children has been both depressing and alarming. ‘The 30 hours will be great for parents!’, we are constantly told – and I have no doubt that, for those that can access a place, that may be true.
But it seems clear to me that there are many potentially concerning consequences of the offer for children – this is of particular concern when it comes to children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
If a child’s parent happens to earn less than £120 a week, or is a volunteer, or in training rather than in work, that child will not even get to access the 30 hours. The government has argued that these children will at least still receive their 15-hours a week and that this is all that is needed in order to gain the benefits of early education – but even this is not guaranteed.
Back in March 2016, the National Audit Office warned that the roll-out of the 30-hour offer could negatively impact on providers’ willingness or ability to continue delivering the funded two-year-old offer. The government itself has since acknowledged the potential risk of 30-hour places being delivered at the expense of existing 15-hour places, many of which will be taken up by those children whose parents do not meet the 30-hour eligibility threshold.
How have we so casually rolled out a policy that could end up restricting or even reducing poorer children’s access to early years provision?
And this is not just theoretical. The government evaluation of the early roll-out of the 30-hour offer (undertaken by Dorset, Tower Hamlets, North Yorkshire and Leicestershire from April this year) noted that in one of the areas, ‘a local programme offering 10 additional free hours to more disadvantaged three and four-year-olds will be phased out because of the extended hours, while disadvantaged children with parents who are not working will no longer receive free additional hours’.
Is this government money well spent? On a policy where disadvantaged children are potentially losing out on funded childcare to families with a household income of nearly £200,000? The fact is that the whole government approach to childcare policy seems to be skewed towards the more well-off. We should not forget that eligibility for the 30-hour offer is based on earnings, not hours worked, meaning that while someone on minimum wage would need to work 16 hours a week to qualify for the scheme, someone earning, say, £150,000 would need to work just two.
Similarly, the tax-free childcare scheme is a completely regressive policy, with those families that can afford to save more in their childcare accounts getting a bigger top-up from government. In fact, recent research from the Social Mobility Foundation found that, of the billions government is spending on the early years over the course of this parliament, only a quarter will reach the bottom half of families by income, and a mere 2.7 percent will reach the most disadvantaged families.
The government talks a great deal about the importance of social mobility, but where are the actions to back up this rhetoric? We were promised a Life Chances strategy, which then disappeared without a trace.
We were promised a consultation on children’s centres, which two years later is yet to see the light of day – instead, we have seen a gradual decimation of funding for such centres, leaving many of those families most in need without a vital source of support.
It is said often, but I truly do believe that every child, regardless of background, deserves the best start in life, and so, when we see policies that risk putting those most in need of support at the bottom of the pile, it is the duty of every single one of us to speak out. I, for one, intend to do so – and I hope you will join me. eye