Ahead of the Autumn Statement this week, polling shared exclusively with New Statesman Spotlight shows that British voters lack faith that the government will fulfil Jeremy Hunt’s pledges to fix the ailing early years sector and reduce childcare costs for parents.
Fees for nursery places in the UK are among the highest in the developed countries of the OECD. In his Budget in March the Chancellor announced an expansion of the 30 free hours of childcare previously available for children between the ages of three and five years. Under Hunt’s new policy, these hours would be available from when a child is nine months old (at the end of maternity leave).
The move was welcomed by campaigners, but the Chancellor’s plans faced criticism from the sector over inadequate funding, a lack of a strategy to grow the childcare workforce, and the sheer lack of available spaces for all the additional children who would enter the system when the expansion kicks in (albeit in stages) from April 2024. At that point 15 hours of government-funded childcare will be extended to working parents of two-year-olds.
The survey released this week by the Early Education and Childcare Coalition (EECC), a group of 30 organisations launched this year, looked at attitudes among UK adults towards the main political parties’ approaches to childcare reform. Despite the Conservatives having announced reform in March, voters did not have faith that Rishi Sunak’s government would reduce childcare costs. Only 7 per cent said they trusted the Conservatives the most to bring costs down, while 35 per cent trusted Labour the most. This is despite the fact that Labour has watered down its talk of overhauling early years provision if it wins the next election. In the survey 5 per cent said they trusted the Liberal Democrats the most, and 29 per cent said they didn’t know which party they trusted the most on this issue.
Voters also lacked faith in the Tories ensuring quality education for under fives. Only 9 per cent trusted the government the most to ensure quality provision, 26 per cent trusted Labour, 6 per cent the Liberal Democrats, and 25 per cent said they didn’t know.
The sector remains in crisis. Another EECC report this month found that 57 per cent of staff in early years settings are considering leaving their jobs. Sarah Ronan, director of the EECC, said: “If the Chancellor wants to deliver on his Spring Budget promise of more ‘free childcare’, he must use his Autumn Statement to address funding shortfalls and staffing challenges in the sector.”
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, added that “years of underfunding” and “severe staffing challenges” have been “a recipe for disaster”.
The polling was conducted by YouGov in late July among 2,000 respondents. YouGov also asked voters about eligibility for receiving the 30 hours of government-funded childcare. This currently depends on whether at least one parent in a couple is in work, and whether they are earning a minimum amount. According to a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Coram, a group of children’s charities, from May this year, if the government doesn’t target families most in need with its childcare expansion the most disadvantaged children would miss out. Respondents to the survey were split on whether this should remain the case: 45 per cent said children should be able to access early years care whether their parents are in work or not, while 46 per cent who disagreed.
Labour has pledged to improve the UK’s childcare offer under its national mission to “break down barriers to opportunity”. Having initially trailed an “overhaul” of the system, last month the party announced it would carry out a review of early years, including looking at eligibility. Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson told Spotlight that it should “come as no surprise” that voters have so little faith in the Conservatives: “After years of neglect, nursery after nursery is going to the wall leaving vast swathes with only a single place for multiple children, driving higher costs for families without raising quality”. She added that Labour is “determined” to improve the system, which is why the party has asked former Ofsted chief inspector David Bell “to draw up plans to drive high and rising standards.”
Given the size of respondents answering “don’t know” to the questions posed, there is clearly a lot for all parties to play for. In fact, in September another EECC poll found that 42 per cent of people said childcare reform policies would be critical in helping them decide who to vote for at the next election.
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