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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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.