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19 Oct 2023

Conference Season: Parties unveil pledges for UK’s childcare system

Conference Season: Parties unveil pledges for UK’s childcare system

NMT editor Briony Richter provides an overview of where different political parties stand in terms of the early years sector and its future.

Over the last couple of weeks, the major political parties have taken to the stage across the country to garner support with sets of new and updated policies to transform the early years sector.

The cost-of-living crisis has crippled many people’s incomes and put the cost of childcare on the frontline of debate this year. Both parents and nursery operators are struggling to cope with the rising costs, with little financial relief trickling through.

That has pressured the current government to level up its financial and business support of the sector, and with a general election looming, the other political heavyweights line up their alternative solutions.

Let’s find out where they stand.

Conservative party

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government began their pledges towards the early years sector back in March when Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced the much anticipated Spring Budget.

The package of support promised to invest £4 billion into the sector, in a move that Hunt claimed will significantly ease the financial burden on families. That being said, we saw reports from numerous business organisations stating that at least double this amount would be needed to make a real and long lasting sustainable impact

During the Budget, the Conservatives pledged to increase this offering in three staggered stages.

  • From April 2024, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of funded childcare.
  • From September 2024, 15 hours of free childcare will be extended down to the age of nine months.
  • From September 2025, working parents of children aged nine months and upwards will be entitled to 30 hours free childcare per week right up to their child starting school. 

At the conference, party spokespeople reiterated their support for the education sector but said very little on early years specifically.

Jeremy Hunt confirmed that the national living wage will rise to two thirds of average earnings, making it at least £11 an hour from April 2024. However, with the cost-of-living crisis still rife, nursery operators and organisations raised concerns that the increase will reduce funding available.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “Unless the government ensures that funding for the sector rises in line with wage increases, what should be a positive development for the sector could end up marking the final nail in the coffin for settings across the country.”

Labour party

Previously this year, the party ruled out an ambition to bring in universal childcare for all young children from nine months to 11 years old for a means-test system.

In its “five missions for a better Britain”, the fifth mission being education, Labour pledged to work with the early years and childcare sector to build capacity, initially by removing legislative barriers to local authorities opening new childcare provision.

The mission stated: “For Labour, childcare must be more than just a facility that allows parents to work more hours. It is about providing every child with the best start in life; an early years education which sets them up for school and supports child development. Extensive evidence shows the positive impact of high-quality early education on long-term educational, behavioural and social outcomes, and on closing the gap for children in low-income households.”

During her speech at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, the shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, announced a ‘major’ early years review to reshape the childcare system.

The Labour early years review by Sir David Bell is set to cover the following areas:

  • Developing a plan for the widening of childcare eligibility which was promised by the Conservatives at the 2023 Budget.
  • Ways to increase the amount of primary school-based nursery provision, while also looking how to remove restrictions on local authorities from opening nursery provision.
  • Improve staffing and overall workforce.

Phillipson added that the review will aim: “To bring high and rising standards, for the workforce we need, for the qualifications they’ll have, for the settings where it’ll happen, for the education they’ll give, to deliver our ambition for a modernised childcare system, supporting families from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school.”

The shadow education secretary also reiterated Labour plans for universal breakfast clubs, before pledging much more significant early interventions for speech and language development and work to reduce the attainment gap between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers.

Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats reiterated their goals at their party conference on completely overhauling the early years childcare sector.

Their “A Better Start in Life for Every Child” pledges to transform parental leave and early years education:

Childcare and Early Years Education

  • Reaffirming long-term commitment to delivering free, full-time childcare for all children from age two and those with working parents from nine months.
  • Reviewing payment rates for childcare providers to ensure they genuinely reflect the costs of delivering high-quality childcare and early years education.
  • Boosting the number of childminders by simplifying regulation whilst retaining high standards.
  • Developing a career strategy for childcare staff, including a comprehensive training programme so that most childcare staff working with children aged two to four have a relevant Early Years qualification.

Parental Leave & Support

  • Giving all workers, including self-employed parents, a day-one right to parental leave and pay.
  • Giving all families up to a year of paid parental leave. Each parent will get six weeks of use-it-or-lose-it leave, with 46 weeks of parental leave to share between themselves as they choose.
  • Increasing paternity pay to 90% of earnings, with a cap for high earners. 

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)

  • Providing extra funding for local councils to halve the amount that schools pay towards supporting the costs of a child with additional needs, from £6,000 to £3,000.
  • Introducing a new National Body for SEND to fund support for children with very high needs, helping to end the postcode lottery in SEND provision.
  • Emphasising identifying and supporting children with SEND in the new training programme for early years staff.

Scottish National Party

First Minister Humza Yousaf has stated that childcare will be at the centre of his government's policy agenda for the coming year.

Yousaf announced his plans for extending the funded childcare policy in his first programme for Government speech.

He stated that his government will accelerate the expansion of the two-year-old offer by starting to phase in families with two-year-olds from next year, and will give parents more control over how what level of childcare they choose.

However, this will not be universal yet and will depend on families meeting a specific set of criteria. He committed to improving childminder recruitment and increasing pay for early years staff to a minimum of £12 per hour from April.

The SNP manifesto focuses on tackling poverty and growing a more greener and sustainable society. He pledged investment of more than £400m in the Scottish Child Payment to provide more than £1,000 a year for over 300,000 children.

The first minister said this would come as part of £1bn in extra funding for social security measures. But there was no commitment to increasing the Scottish Child Payment from its current level of £25 a week per child, as campaigners such as the Child Poverty Action Group have been calling for.

In his speech, he stated:

“We know one of the biggest challenges the sector faces is recruitment. So I can confirm today we will provide funding so staff in the Private, Voluntary and Independent sector, who deliver funded early learning and childcare, are paid a minimum of £12 an hour from April of next year.

“High quality early education and childcare is a perfect example of a policy that is both anti-poverty and pro-growth, I am proud that Scotland has the most generous childcare offer in the UK, and I am committed to ensuring we stay ahead and provide families with the crucial support they need.”

Have you secured your FREE ticket for Nursery Managers Show Vol. 2? Join us at ExCeL London on 24th-25th November to boost your management skills and learn from early years experts.


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