Cameron's plan to force schools to take two-year-olds is pie in the sky policy

Unless there is investment to help schools build nursery classrooms, this announcement is meaningless for parents.

Yesterday I gave a speech in front of 400 early years providers and professionals. Their dedication and commitment to supporting parents and children shone through their questions and comments. However, so did their concern for the families faced with difficult decisions over childcare, as a result of David Cameron’s childcare crunch.

Under this government, families facing a cost-of-living crisis are being hit with a triple whammy in childcare. Early years places have fallen by 35,000 and childcare costs are soaring, up 30 per cent since 2010. Nursery costs have risen five times faster than wages and the government has cut the amount of help families receive through tax credits, making it harder to make ends meet.

This week's headline grabbing announcement from the government shows us that they think telling schools to take two-year-olds is the answer to the problems they have created in childcare. But this announcement is complete pie in the sky that will do little to help families struggling with childcare, and will put further pressure on our primary schools. The reality is that David Cameron has already created a primary school places crisis, with 240,000 places needed by this September. Many of our best primary schools are already oversubscribed and schools are struggling to take on extra reception classes, let alone two-year-olds.

Whilst Labour believes that schools can play an important role in caring for pre-school children, it is pie in the sky from ministers to suggest that schools taking on more two-year-olds will be cost neutral. Unless there is capital investment to help schools build nursery classrooms, this announcement is meaningless for parents. It is nothing but further proof that David Cameron has no plan to tackle the rising childcare costs and fewer places that parents are facing under his government.

The government is already failing to provide enough places for the 20 per cent most disadvantaged two-year-olds, with 38,000 missing out on the places they were promised. We know from Freedom of Information requests that one in three councils do not have enough places for two-year-olds now and this is set to get worse when the scheme is expanded next September. Alongside the lack of availability, the government is doing nothing to drive up the quality of childcare places in this scheme, with the Sutton Trust calling on the government to delay the roll-out to ensure more quality places be found.

There are other questions too about what a classroom for two-year-olds would look like and whether parents want this kind of provision for their children. We already know that two-year-olds need specialist care and support which is very different from older children, and this raises concerns about the quality of care for two-year-olds. Minister Liz Truss has long been an exponent of loosening the childcare ratios for young children and increasing the number of children childminders and nursery workers can look after. This flies in the face of advice from experts, who say this would risk child safety, damage the quality of care and would not bring down costs for parents.

For the government to now try and push its own failings with childcare onto the shoulders of already pressured primary schools is both irresponsible and unworkable. Labour would tackle the problems with childcare that parents are facing, extending the provision of free childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds from 15 to 25 hours and introducing a primary childcare guarantee to help parents manage before and after-school childcare. Whilst David Cameron and Liz Truss might see primary schools taking two-year-olds as the silver bullet after their failure to loosen the childcare ratios, back in the real world, this announcement will do little to help the hardworking parents who are struggling day-to-day with the difficult choices they have to make on childcare and the strain that this government has put on family life.

Lucy Powell MP is the shadow minister for childcare and children  

David Cameron talks to two-year-old Theo during a visit to a London Early Years Foundation nursery on January 11, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear