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: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

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

0800 7318496