Government must make childcare commitments

Article written for Early Years Educator, September 2017 by Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice. 

By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice

Now the dust is settling after the drama of the snap election, it is time for the real work to resume in Westminster and at the Department for Education (DfE). The recent Queen’s Speech set government policy and legislative priorities for the next two years.  Understandably, the main focus was Brexit. However, it was disappointing that the speech – made on the day that the OECD published a report highlighting the key role of early education and care in boosting social mobility – offered little for education and nothing for childcare. Lack of policy and legislative change can be viewed positively.  It can be seen as an opportunity for the sector to consolidate and embed some of the many changes that have been imposed on it, until, that is, it is realised that further change to policy does not always require legislative change.  This means that there could, indeed, be further change on the horizon.  What the sector needs to know, and know urgently, is what change there is likely to be. Without this knowledge, it will be difficult both to plan and to prepare to engage with government and officials on relevant matters.  We also need to take into consideration that the largely new and reduced ministerial team is minus a dedicated minister for childcare and early years.   It remains to be seen whether this will be to the detriment or advantage of the sector.  There is no doubt that the new minister, Robert Goodwill, has a huge task ahead of him.  He not only has to familiarise himself with his enormous ministerial portfolio – which includes children’s social care, safeguarding in schools, the Pupil Premium, early years and childcare policy, delivery of the 30 hours offer, social mobility and opportunity areas – but also prioritise his work and that of his team of officials to meet government aspirations and manifesto commitments. We hope that, given the competing priorities within the early years alone, adding other, competing, although important, priorities, does not mean that childcare drops down the Government’s agenda, with policies that are reactive and crisis-driven, rather than proactive and planned, pushed to the top of the pile with first claim on funding. Voice and others have commented that the greatest resource of the early years and childcare sector is those who work within it.  The level of commitment and dedication of the professional workforce cannot be doubted.  With this in mind, Voice suggests to the new minister that fulfilling the commitments made in the Early Years Workforce Strategy in March is both urgent and important, if government aspirations are to be fulfilled for the benefit of children and families.  The strategy clearly states that publication of the strategy is not the end of the journey on workforce development, and that the Government is committed to continuing to not only consult, but collaborate with, the sector to meet the many challenges it faces.  This is a welcome and laudable aspiration, and one which Voice wants to strenuously commend and engage with to reach a successful conclusion. During the general election, Voice published, for all political parties, what we believe should be the education and childcare priorities for the new government. That is, it must:

  • implement an early years and childcare workforce strategy that is supported by a clear career pathway and national pay structure;
  • commit to development of policy for all phases of education and childcare that is led by the profession through positive, meaningful engagement with relevant stakeholders; and
  • develop, publish and implement a set of professional standards for teaching assistants in schools and colleges, supported by a standard job description and national pay scale.

The autumn financial statement will no doubt influence significantly how the whole early years agenda will be prioritised.  So, unfortunately, will the political cycle.  It is therefore vital that the Government listens to the sector and acts on the wealth of research evidence available, reaffirming its commitment in the workforce strategy, and ensuring there is a long-term vision for the workforce, with sufficient investment and funding to sustain and grow the sector and professional workforce. Without such commitment and vision, the lasting impact of good early years provision, as stated by the OECD, will not be realised – something which we cannot risk for our children or their futures.

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