The free childcare debate – an open letter

October 16th 2017

Dear Mr Goodwill
Last week, as I watched the debate on thirty hours “free childcare” initiated by Ruth George MP sitting on the Green bench, I wondered why something that everyone appeared to agree was a good idea needed to become party political. Both parties advocated more funded hours to reduce childcare costs for parents in their manifestos. Those MPs from both sides of the House attending the debate reiterated this view and accepted the principle of supporting parents work by funding their childcare was a good one.  As an observer, I noted that the main issue being scrutinised was in fact, the implementation of the policy and understanding the devil in the detail.

The presentations from Ruth George MP, Tracy Brabin MP (our Shadow Minister) and their colleagues were helpful.  They were well prepared and the debate was well chaired with a business like and unemotive approach; something that David Dimbleby  and the Question Time panel could emulate.  You had time to hear a range of examples that brought to life the cogent arguments made about costs versus funding rates and associated difficulties such as business rates.  There were many real examples of the implications of an insufficient national rate. Some gaps by as much as 20% against the real costs of childcare and early learning. Sadly, this is not a new argument. Colleagues such as Neil Leitch from Pre School Learning Alliance  is consistently eloquent on the matter. The NDNA have conducted surveys which highlight the cost differential and the campaign so aptly entitled Champagne and Lemonade was set up to ensure the discussion remained clear and well informed, a purpose for which it was given well deserved credit at the debate.

Like many policies before it, there are often unintended negative consequences. For someone who runs a social enterprise designed to support up to 40% of our families, we are concerned that the poorest families are not accessing the funded offer. Many barriers are in their way including complexity of registration, eligibility criteria and a shortfall of settings able and willing to provide the 30 hours without inviting parents to pay for additional services.  This is an issue which really needs to be understood especially if the consequence is to exclude those very vulnerable children who benefit most from high quality early learning, a point noted in the recent Sutton Trust report.

So, Mr Goodwill, please listen to the argument both as a representative of the people and as the Minister tasked with implementing a new policy. The sector is neither being deliberately obstreperous, nor trying to make your life more difficult. We recognise that the Government has other serious issues to address, not least Brexit. However, in failing to listen and responding by repeating the same argument that the pilots went well ergo all is well, you do yourself and your Government a disservice. The issue of implementation is complex so work with the very sector who understand this complexity. It’s in our shared interests to make this happen successfully.  Don’t be stubborn and risk alienating the very sector that you need to implement the policy. We have seen this happen before such as the A to C GCSE requirement debacle. This positive ambition was scuppered because the Minister failed to work with the sector to implement it sensibly and intelligently. It was so poorly implemented that many nurseries were financially damaged and in the end, a coherent campaign Save Our Early Years stopped it before many other nurseries failed and the pipeline of future staff dried up.

Show that you can listen and learn.  Failing to listen is disrespectful. Consider those 56% of nurseries which think they may be out of business in the next 18 months. How is that going to help parents, employers and the economy? As a country, we need to be pulling together.  Childcare is part of the national infrastructure.  So, even if you care nothing for the sector please at least consider the implications of this policy on the country’s economic happiness and security.

Yours sincerely