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.
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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