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. 

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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