If Starmer wants a defining policy for government, this is it: childcare, childcare, childcare | Polly Toynbee


An award-winning children’s centre in Corby, Northamptonshire is about to be hit with an estimated 70% funding cut from its local council, demolishing all that it’s famous for. It is the culmination of the 13-year destruction of Labour’s Sure Start programme. I have been visiting Pen Green over many years; it is considered a beacon and model for children’s centres, training thousands of early-years teachers and childcare specialists, and visited by people from all the world who want to copy its success.

This wilful destruction hits one of the most deprived parts of Corby, a Labour town now swallowed up by Tory North Northamptonshire. The council is taking the money to spread among three nurseries in less deprived zones, a depressing reminder of how much more damage the Conservatives can still do in their swan-song remaining months. Under threat before, Pen Green was rescued by a former Tory minister but the children’s minister, Claire Coutinho, has told Pen Green she won’t save it.

What bad timing amid a great groundswell of protest about the collapsing nursery system before next week’s budget. Costing an unaffordable average of just under £15,000 a year for a full-time place for a child under two, nurseries are closing in droves, unable to finance the government’s so-called 30 free hours, with pay so low that childcare assistants flee elsewhere. The fact is the sum the government pays to supposedly cover these hours is far too little, so nurseries struggle unless they can charge parents significant extras.

I know of no social issue that has aroused such a surprising coalition of quite different interests to demand radical reform. It would once be unthinkable that the CBI, Federation of Small Businesses, British Chambers of Commerce and Institute of Directors, along with the consultancy group PwC and a string of other business voices, should all cry out for affordable, flexible good childcare. As more women are forced out of work by the breakdown in childcare, employers urgently need those 1.7 million missing women back in their workforce: childcare failure alone costs upwards of £27bn, or 1% of GDP, says the Centre for Progressive Policy.

After arriving in the Commons seven months pregnant in 1982, Harriet Harman was greeted by hoots of derision when she asked her first question, to Margaret Thatcher, asking about the lack of childcare provision in school holidays “as most parents work to support their families”. Thatcher replied, “No, I do not believe that it is up to the government to provide care for schoolchildren during the school holidays.” “Harperson”, as she was mockingly called, was shaken but undeterred by contempt from her own side, too: childcare was not real politics. It is now.

Though her motives were primarily feminist, Harman, as social security secretary, persuaded Gordon Brown that childcare was also a necessity to get single mothers off benefits and into work. Later, he and the Labour party, which had declared education, education, education a key objective, embraced Sure Start, an ambitious social programme pursuing Labour values of social justice and equality. The shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, in a speech made on Thursday to the conservative thinktank Onward, took on the current childcare collapse and again turned Labour’s future early years ambitions into something far more than merely providing a holding pen for children while mothers work.

Her promise is for a new childcare system to provide affordable nurseries from the end of parental leave right through to the end of primary school, including holidays. That would be life-transforming for millions of families desperately struggling and juggling – and it would indeed send a flood of able people back into the workforce. She begins with a small promise of free breakfast clubs for every primary school in England, getting hungry children ready to learn. But she will unfold the rest and how it will be paid for as Labour calculates its budget before the election. They can’t do everything, everywhere, all at once, but they can spell out the direction of travel and the steps to get there.

I was at Pen Green last year when Phillipson visited as part of her tour of the best childcare and nursery education programmes across the world. She has been to Estonia, where parents pay just £50 a month for nurseries staffed entirely by graduates, and to Australia, where Labor won the elections with ambitious childcare policies. Early years, she said, “will be my first priority”, promising a big increase in Pen Green-style state-maintained nurseries. She means it.

At Sure Start’s peak in 2010, there were 3,500 centres, based on incontrovertible evidence that earliest years matter most: the rest is catch-up in a country with a stubborn 15% gap in education achievement between least and most deprived places. In Phillipson’s analysis, Sure Start failed politically to embed itself beyond the reach of hostile future Tory governments, unlike the NHS, which no Tories have dared to try to abolish. Not next time, she says.

Phillipson is eating the Tories’ lunch, claiming that Labour is now the party of the family. It hardly needs saying, after the mammoth destruction of children’s support began with George Osborne’s first child-eating budget cutting deep into schools, children’s arts, sports, health visitors, school nurses and more.

When Labour has to make spending choices, Phillipson will argue for youngest children first (before social care and health, I would urge), if Keir Starmer’s message is to aim high for the future. That takes political determination, as children’s centres’ true results arrive far beyond one electoral term. No doubt, in the budget, the chancellor will bung extra cash into childcare and its phoney “free hours” funding, but that won’t fix a profoundly broken system.



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