The coalition's cuts to early years education are storing up problems for the future

By neglecting the early years we risk having to spend more playing catch-up later on.

If the Spending Round was supposed to protect education, the Chancellor’s calculations didn’t add up. By ignoring early years, what sounds like good news for schools could end up being bad news for education outcomes.

The schools budget is one of the few that has been protected from cuts – not just in cash terms, but in real terms. But by ring-fencing schools funding, other areas of education will take a much deeper hit. Rather than an across the board cut of 1 per cent, this will be concentrated in early years, early intervention projects and further education colleges, who now face more than a 4 per cent cut in their budgets.

In the pre-spending review negotiations, Nick Clegg fought to maintain the government’s commitment to rolling out childcare to 2-year-olds in low-income families. So it could have been worse. Small mercy. From an educational development perspective, it makes better sense to prioritise funding in the early years than to spend more on playing catch-up later on. The first years of a child’s life are a crucial period of rapid development. We know high quality childcare has the potential to boost children’s development (both cognitive and social), and, most importantly, we know high quality early years has the greatest positive impact on those children from households with lower levels of income and education.

And disadvantage starts young. At 18 months, children of parents with lower income and lower levels of formal education are already scoring substantially lower in development tests than their colleagues, and these gaps typically widen. Our early years sector has been instrumental in helping narrow this gap, less than half of children from a Free School Meal background are deemed to have a "good level of development" at five. This either means less privileged children are getting left behind when they start compulsory education or schools have to invest far more money tackling the gap later on.

The early years sector is struggling and further cuts will only exacerbate the problem. Many providers are already unable to cover costs of delivering the free entitlement – and this has been worsening in recent months. Four out of ten nurseries that offer free places for two-year-olds do not receive enough funding to cover their costs. The average shortfall (£1.19 per hour) works out as a loss of £678 per year, per child. In the south of England it’s even worse, at £1,208. For the three and four-year-old places, 8 out of 10 nurseries in England are unable to cover their costs, losing £700 per year per child.

So the further cuts to local authorities and early years are going to cause serious problems. The costs can’t be absorbed by providers – a quarter of providers made a financial loss in the previous year, and salaries are already extremely low, with the average full time childminder earning just £11,400 a year.

If the costs can’t be covered by the sector, providers will either face closure or will need to push the prices up. But parents already pay comparatively high prices for childcare, and family incomes are already being squeezed by the fact the costs of living rising quicker than pay.

By neglecting the early years we risk having to spend more playing catch-up later on. The Spending Round verdict? Great for schools, but tough on toddlers.

David Cameron is pictured during a visit to a London Early Years Foundation nursery in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.