The election fever has begun. Well, less of a fever and more of a virus at the moment. The manifesto writers are busy locked in a darkened room trying to shape their political parties’ ideas and offers. According to the media and political pundits the main subject of the election is Brexit but a general election needs to address domestic bread and butter policy as well.
The challenge of all manifesto promises is that they are great big statements with little attention to the detail. More often than not, the translation of the manifesto promises is delegated to the local authorities. These, much maligned councils, very often find themselves having to interpret these promises into pragmatic solutions without the necessary resources. This is a concern for all local authorities given they are under huge financial pressure, not least in the area of social care and community support.
Some local authorities are still trying to deliver big manifesto promises from the last parliament such as Universal Credit which are still not implemented and emerging information shows that the promise is benefiting fewer than the anticipated headline numbers leading to greater complexity. In fact, in the case of Universal Credit the very recent DWP figures confirmed that the number of people caught in the cross fire of a manifesto promise has increased from 8000 to 15000. The result is more working people now live in poverty and around 2.3 million children in the UK are living below the Child Poverty Act 2010 relative poverty threshold, representing one-fifth of all children. By the same measure, eight million working age adults and, overall, over one-fifth of the UK population live in poverty. For those families stuck in a cycle of poverty the escape routes are limited. Routes out of poverty include cheaper housing, affordable childcare and flexible employment. These options are currently not freely available.
The issue of childcare is of great interest to me. As a social entrepreneur I lead the design and development of the largest community childcare social business, the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF). It was created to reduce poverty by providing all families but especially poor families access to affordable childcare. However, despite successive Governments recognising the benefits to parents and children of good quality affordable childcare, we have yet to see a fully funded robust coherent anti child poverty childcare system implemented. Every Government has done something but never enough given the raft of national and international research which confirms the long-term benefit of high quality childcare and education for children, families and societies.
Nobel prize winning economist Professor James Heckman shows how childcare can reduce poverty and improve the educational achievement gap found in disadvantaged children. This gap opens up between them and their more affluent peers at 22 months and is very hard to close. He argued that Governments should invest in early years not least because of the rate of return which he calculated as a 7 to 10% return per annum through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime. So, the argument for early intervention is strong, and quality childcare plays a significant part in this.
For example our Prime Minister Theresa May recently challenged us as a society for failing to tackle the issue of mental ill health which as she said goes right to the heart of our humanity.
She cited government statistics that show one in four people has a mental disorder at some point in their life, with young people affected disproportionately as half of mental health problems start by the age of 14 and 75% by 18 at an annual cost of £105bn. Half of this would fund a world leading, life changing, society improving early interventionist childcare strategy.
There are many other benefits to taking an early interventionist route; employment that balances work and family enhances well bring, reduces poverty and sets a positive example to children. Lone parents who have flexible work and accessible childcare step out of poverty more quickly and the cost benefit of enabling professional educated women to work while their children are young has innumerable benefits for employers and the country’s economy. The challenge is therefore building and funding an early interventionist strategy that recognises how childcare can be key to our social and economic infrastructure.
The impending new government therefore has the chance to pull together all the positive elements of previous governments policy initiatives and create the most effective and powerful early interventionist childcare in the world beginning with these six steps:
1. Raise the profile and long-term impact of good quality childcare and how it benefits all children and society by leading a strong public front facing awareness campaign
2. Boost the involvement of employers in the awareness campaign so that they invest in better childcare and family friendly activates to attract and retain staff
3. Strengthen quality by investing in an Early Years work strategy that sets out and funds a national properly paid, attractive career pathway from apprentice to Masters degrees.
4. Develop a national housing policy which includes an explicit keyworker building programme especially for those low paid nursery staff.
5. Better fund the public childcare offer so that its fair and accessible to all parents not just those who can make up the shortfall through parental contributions.
6. Amplify and foster the important role of social businesses in the childcare market as sustainable means of providing high quality childcare within poor and diverse communities.