Joan Walmsley writes … Disadvantaged children should be prioritised in the Early Years, says House of Lords Committee

Childcare Centre

Liberal Democrats have done a great deal in Government to provide more and better early education and childcare. From increasing the free entitlement for three and four year olds and extending it to disadvantaged two year olds to introducing the Early Years Pupil Premium and helping parents with the costs through tax relief, this government has been on the side of young children and their families.

Two things have happened relating to childcare in the last two weeks. Nick Clegg has made some commitments about what Liberal Democrats would fight for in the next Parliament and the House of Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare has produced its report following many months of hearing evidence. Members may be interested as to how these two things fit together.

Baroness Claire Tyler and myself, who were both responsible for the “Balanced Working Life” policy paper and conference motion which set out Lib Dem proposals in this area, were also both on the Select Committee (The only 2 Lib Dems members out of a total 13 which I think underlines the fact that we did well to get as much of our policy in as we did).  We worked hard to get the committee to agree to evidence based recommendations which we knew to be compatible with Liberal Democrat policy, though, of course, it was a cross party committee. Although the resulting report was by no means a Liberal Democrat Manifesto, it had several features in common with our policies, Nick’s recent speeches and what we hope to see in our manifesto.

The Committee’s main recommendation was that, in setting priorities within the early years budget, the government should focus on providing high quality childcare for the most disadvantaged children because it is they who will benefit most from it and therefore it is good value for money.

We went further in suggesting that spending money on free childcare places which were not of good quality was a waste of money. In other words, if you are not going to fund the policy properly, you might as well not bother because it will not achieve the primary policy objective of supporting the development of children, providing them with social mobility by enabling them to make the best of their education when they get to school. That has implications for the way the free entitlement is funded and we recommended that the government should look at the wide ranging negative consequences of the unfair and inadequate system we have now.

The committee also focussed on the policy objective of closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their better off peers. That is why Nick’s commitment to tripling the Early Education Pupil Premium is so welcome because it should enable settings providing places for disadvantaged children to employ more highly qualified staff and thereby provide better quality care. He also called for more graduates and other well qualified staff in early years settings and this corresponded with the committee’s finding that the main common factor in high quality settings is well qualified staff.

We looked also at the policy objectives of helping parents to work and bringing children out of poverty, another area where our government has helped by making the free entitlement more flexible and making childcare costs tax free within certain limits. Having heard all the evidence, it was a relief to know that we are both doing and proposing the right things!

* Joan Walmsley is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords

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One Comment

  • Cara Jenkinson 4th Mar '15 - 10:47pm

    Hi Joan your comments re the expansion of free childcare provision chimes very well with my experience. I am a governor of a primary school and children’s centre in Tottenham where they have been running the 2 year old programme with good success for the last 3 years. One of the real challenges is recruiting trained staff – any dramatic expansion of entitlement to free childcare will make this situation even worse. We need to invest in training young people to take up roles in early years settings, and provide good career progression and development once they are in the role. Otherwise I fear at best we will get indifferent childcare, and at worst we could have more safeguarding scandals. Would you be ok for me to post your article on the Liberal Democrat Education Association website (which I edit?)

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