Challenges for the New Childcare Minister
8th November 2016
Our headline sponsors, Morton Michel have provided us with an insight into the challenges that lie ahead for our new Childcare Minister…
For a long time now, childcare has been increasing in prominence on the political stage. Over the past twenty years both single parent families and families where both parents are in work have become more and more commonplace, and with that, demand for accessible and affordable childcare has risen dramatically. Along with this has come an increased awareness of the importance of early years education to children’s development and parents have ever-more sophisticated requirements. For politicians, this means the votes of those parents are potentially up for grabs. The party that gets childcare policy right, that successfully delivers what parents are asking for can dramatically improve its electoral chances.
With today’s turbulent and polarised political environment, wide-reaching popular policies are few and far between. No wonder then that at the 2015 General Election, all the major parties made pledges directly to parents. Most dramatically, the Conservatives surprised Labour by trumping their offer of 25 funded hours with a counter-pledge of 30. Of course, at the time, the polls suggested a hung parliament and perhaps the Conservatives never expected to have to follow through with the policy, but when the votes were counted and the dust settled, there it was, a hugely popular scheme that the government absolutely had to deliver.
It is now almost 18 months later and much has happened. Brexit is on the cards, Cameron and Osborne are retreating into memory and the erstwhile childcare minister Sam Gyimah has moved on to pastures new in the Ministry of Justice. In his place sits Caroline Dinenage, the new minister. On her desk lies the 30 hours policy, announced, funded and in the process of being trialled. All that remains, it seems, is its final delivery. Unlike almost any childcare policy that has gone before, 30 free hours is incredibly well known. Up and down the country childcare providers are reporting parents asking for it already. Every hiccough or doubt is reported not just in the trade press but in the popular media. Labour, initially offering bipartisan support, are starting to make sceptical noises. There is everything to play for. Get it right and both plaudits and votes await. Fail, and both political disaster and economic strife could be the consequences.
It is a difficult task. Undoubtedly the Department for Education fought hard for the funding necessary, and they are rightly proud of making significant gains. Whether it will be enough though is a question that has been raised time and again by the childcare sector and with increasing urgency. This fact alone though may point the way for the new minister to find success. The 30 hours policy was developed in the heat of a general election, it was in all likelihood designed to garner votes and so was formulated with parents in mind. Parents though, whilst of course of high importance are not the only stakeholders. Childcare providers must have a voice; it is the industry itself that knows best how to deliver childcare.
The new minister needs to listen to what the sector is saying. Scepticism about pleas for funding is understandable, but when they are sustained they should be given credence. Early signs though are encouraging. The sector has long voiced concerns about qualification requirements and the difficulties they are causing in recruiting and retaining talented staff who may not always have a formal education. The minister has strongly indicated that she will move to address this issue. The childcare sector is dedicated, knowledgeable and passionate, and a minister who works in partnership with it will stand a much greater chance of delivering even the most challenging policies.
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