The coalition still isn't rising to the challenge on affordable childcare

The changes announced today by Liz Truss are unlikely to significantly reduce costs, boost quality or widen access to early years provision.

You might have missed it, but today Liz Truss published the latest instalment in the government’s early years reform plans. More Affordable Childcare is the culmination of the government’s commission on childcare. The looming summer holidays might be a delight for kids, but many working parents will be put under huge pressure by the childcare costs that go with it. The need to bring down the price is urgent.

This year, for the first time, the average cost of holiday childcare per child per week has now topped the hundred pound mark. Childcare inflation marches on, far above salary increases, squeezing family budgets. With the average couple spending over a quarter of their net income on care, England is one of the most expensive countries for parents needing childcare.

The government hasn't gone far enough to meet the challenge. Today’s publication, following a year long commission on the early years, doesn’t really provide any new approaches to reform. Most of the changes announced are unlikely to substantially reduce costs, boost quality or widen access to early years provision.

The best news from today’s publication is extending the free entitlement for 2 year olds from the most deprived 20 to 40 per cent. This is good news, but old news – restating what was already pledged by the government. Nevertheless, this is an important step forwards, and should have a positive impact for families. Another good measure is increasing funding for out-of-hours care in schools clubs. But this, in essence, is bringing back a weakened version of Labour’s Extended Schools funding, which was previously scrapped by the coalition.

The other announcements tinker at the margins. Cutting red tape is unlikely to lead to parents seeing real savings in their childcare bills. And new IPPR research shows that introducing childminder agencies could lead to costs actually increasing for parents (as well as potentially undermining quality).

Another bad move is leaving Ofsted as the sole arbiter of quality, and giving settings the automatic right to deliver the free entitlement if they receive a 'good' or 'outstanding' score. The Daycare Trust recently crunched the numbers and demonstrated that Ofsted isn’t always a reliable judge of quality. Particularly in the case of the under-3s, Ofsted scores failed to reflect which settings were best for children’s development. While high quality childcare is good for children, low quality can actually be detrimental.

There needs to be some new, bold thinking. There’s agreement that getting high quality early years care is important and yields dividends for children, parents and society. But both More Great Childcare and More Affordable Childcare fail to rise to the scale of the challenge.

On cost, the government should look seriously at supply-side funding. There are warnings from other countries, that investing in demand-side funding can lead to spiralling inflation and a system that costs more for everyone.

On quality, the government needs to go further. Our polling, and public responses to reform proposals, show there’s real appetite in the sector for driving up quality and status. We believe there should be a minimum requirement of having or working towards a relevant level 3 qualifications for all professionals delivering the Early Years Foundation Stage. The government should also bring back the successful Graduate Leader Fund to keep driving highly qualified staff. More graduates means more centres are able to look after more three and four year olds at any one time. This could cut costs for parents, without being detrimental to children’s development.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg sit together as they visit the Wandsworth Day Nursery in London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.