Councils in England will be encouraged to open more high-quality nurseries as part of ambitious action plans to transform childcare and ease the pressure on struggling parents.
There are fewer than 400 state nursery schools remaining across the country, which were considered the crown jewel of education in the early years, but struggled to survive in the face of budgetary pressures.
The business plans to expand the state nursery sector as part of broader plans to build a system of high-quality, affordable childcare that better meets the needs and working lives of modern families.
With concerns about the cost and availability of child care increasingly showing up on the doorstep, Labor is working on a “universal childcare offering” ahead of the upcoming election and has said it will be one of the issues on the party’s pledge card.
This week, Shadow Education Minister Brigitte Philipson went to look at childcare and early years education in the Baltic state of Estonia, where all children are guaranteed a place in state-run kindergarten from 18 months until they go to school at seven, and parents pay Only €70 per month or less.
After announcing plans for fully funded breakfast clubs for every primary school in England, Phillipson is keen to develop comprehensive sponsorship to extend the school day, and to that end he has gone to see some “hobby schools” in Estonia – free after-school clubs that support children’s education and allow parents flexibility if they have to To work late.
“We need a system that better reflects the needs of modern families and the way they live their lives now,” she told the Guardian newspaper during a visit to Estonia. “I don’t think you can talk about growing your economy unless you have a childcare system that supports the parents.
“It is clear to me that we need to see a real transformation of the early education and childcare available to parents, grouped together into one system that provides seamless support from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school.”
Crucially, Labor is looking to bridge the gap between the end of parental leave and the start of 30 hours of free childcare, which begins with working parents once a child turns three. “There is no support for most families, but most women want to work when they reach the end of parental leave,” Phillipson said.
Increasingly – and the numbers prove it – they are giving up in greater numbers because there is no government contribution [during this time]. That must change. It will be a huge priority for me.”
She said that high-quality education in the early years was clearly beneficial to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, but stressed that she wanted to offer PT “to benefit all parents, including many professional parents who find the cost disabling”.
For now, all policy development comes with a health warning, that unless Labor knows the state of the public finances, it is impossible to make firm promises. However, policymakers are looking at reallocating some of the money that is already there in what is currently a fragmented and unwieldy childcare system.
Managed nursery schools provide state-funded childcare up to the age of five, often including provision for special needs or disabilities. They are run like schools and are the closest thing to an Estonian kindergarten in the English system, but only 385 of them survive in England due to the high cost involved.
Labour’s plan to develop the sector would remove barriers in current legislation that prevent local authorities from creating new childcare, beyond what could prove that no other provider could provide the care. “We would like to expand this component of the sector, but it is very much a ‘travel trend’ and it will not happen overnight,” said one of the sources.
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of the British Association for Early Childhood Education, has welcomed Labour’s plans for new state nursery schools. “We know it’s the most effective form of care, particularly supporting children with the most complex needs and in the most disadvantaged areas.”