In this week’s Policy Brief, we take a look at an article that argues that the UK government should introduce an Early Years guarantee. As part of their Changing Childcare series, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently published “Reimagining early years through childcare guarantee” by Rachel Statham, the Associate Director for Work and Welfare State at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Statham discusses the benefits that Early Years care and education hold for society and how a childcare guarantee can improve access to it.
Changes over the last 80 years
Statham begins by looking at how things have changed over the years in the United Kingdom. When the Beveridge Report was published 80 years ago, it envisaged a country that had a full-time minimum wage that allowed a man to support a wife and a child. Fast forward to the present and the female employment rate in the UK stands at 72%. Modern families no longer suit the model outlined in the Beveridge Report. However, public services and institutions have been unable to keep up with changes in society. The most common working arrangement in the UK for families with children is now two parents working full-time. Most families rely on formal care, but it is difficult to find access to this support due to cost and availability.
Statham also points out how society’s knowledge of Early Years care has changed and how it can have a critical impact on the lives of children. However, despite this growing knowledge the lack of high-quality and affordable services has left parents on their own. Under-investment has led to low-income families being less likely to take up a funded place in an Early Years setting than affluent families. This leads to widening inequalities.
Statham emphasises the importance of high-quality care as it is the key to providing children with the best start to life. However, indicators of quality in the UK’s Early Years sector have been heading in the wrong direction. The sector is underfunded, and the workforce is underpaid and undervalued. This makes it harder to retain staff.
Early Years Guarantee and how to make it happen
Statham argues that the government needs to acknowledge that early years care is an important public service on the same level as primary education. It then needs to invest in it as such. Statham suggests that the UK government should implement a childcare guarantee for every child from birth to the age of 11. Improving outcomes will rely on improving funding but this should be accompanied by measures that will fix the dysfunctional market that is failing to deliver on quality and access. An underfunded system will continue to favour more affluent families. A childcare guarantee must be realised in every setting in every town throughout the country.
To realise this, Statham argues that the infrastructure that supports the delivery of early years care must be reimagined. This would involve restoring local capacity by establishing Early Years teams and setting up new structures that could withstand political transitions. Statham suggests that Regional Care Co-operatives (RCCs) should be set up to take on the responsibility for running new public sector care. Local authorities would be directly involved in the running of these RCCs. RCCs could manage the supply of places across their region by collaborating with local authority nursery trusts to look after the acquisitions of failing providers and to establish new non-profit services where supply is falling short. RCCs could also look a minimising profiteering in the sector by enforcing new quality standards and conditions on public sector funding.
As staff are integral to delivering the early years guarantee, RCCs could be tasked with recruiting more staff as well as developing their skills. This would include facilitating training for staff, creating local skills pipelines that lead talented people into the sector, and establishing programmes that could help with the sharing of best practices. This would help retain staff into the future.
European Child Guarantee
Early Childhood Ireland supports the . The objective of this is to prevent social exclusion by guaranteeing effective access of children in need to key services such as free Early Years education and care. The Irish Government published its plan to implement this Guarantee in April 2022. In the most recent Budget, the government increased the funding for the sector to just over €1 billion. It is hoped that not only will this funding reduce costs for families across Ireland but will also improve the quality of care to allow every child to have the best start to life.
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