In even the most pro-market of political arguments, you’d be surprised to hear anyone attacking the state for providing free education. The post-war consensus fused free primary and secondary school into the national psyche. It become our right as families and our worthy investment as taxpayers. The arguments about quality, curriculum and admissions rage on, but the fundamentals are solid.
Not so for early years. Free childcare is contentious. But this week’s manifesto pledges show this might be changing. Manifesto week has been revealing in many ways. It is the bitter battles that will continue to fill the headlines with increasing vehemence until election day. But perhaps it is the areas of consensus that are most revealing. The Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems found themselves agreeing that we need more childcare. All three parties committed to increasing the amount of pre-school childcare available to working parents of under 5s. It’s not a completely harmonious chorus – there are differences in policy and reach – but it is a loud and clear consensus on the need for more childcare.
At the moment, the government offers 15 hours of free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds and 40 per cent of the most disadvantaged two year olds. Labour has committed to 25 hours, while the Conservatives committed to 30 hours, both restricted to working families. The Lib Dems took a slightly different approach by promising 20 hours for all 2, 3 and 4 year olds, as well as children of 9 months upwards in working families.
This is good news no matter who you are. There is an overwhelming body of evidence that state-subsidised childcare is good for the family and the country. It boosts the employment rate, it improves the life chances of disadvantaged children, and it makes for a more gender equal nation. IPPR have long argued for more childcare for these reasons. The nature of this childcare funding is good too. The pledges all fund supply of childcare places, so the cash is a direct investment in institutions and communities, enabling more and better facilities to grow over time. This is crucial when demand – and prices – are rising.
But to best support mothers into work, it is childcare for the under-3s that is crucial. It is in this period between paid parental leave ending at 9 months and the free hours kicking in at 3 years that many parents are locked out of work. Many want to return to work, but cite the cost of childcare as their biggest barrier to doing so. Extending free childcare to these parents will open up their choices and enable them to do work if they want to. The Lib Dems have addressed this; the other parties should follow suit.
Consensus is a rare thing, even for our ever more centrist politics. Across the spectrum, we are seeing the beginnings of a decent offer of childcare that addresses the anachronistic divide between work and family. Despite the differences in detail, these pledges show the tide is turning for childcare.