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Early years takes centre stage at Labour Party Conference

In his major speech at the Labour Party Conference this week, Jeremy Corbyn set out his vision for childcare. It’s not the first time a party leader has put childcare at the top of their agenda – indeed, all the main political parties set out bold visions for childcare in the 2015 and 2017 General Elections.

Childcare is a big, meaty social policy issue. It’s unsurprisingly a vote-winner and is clearly an issue the parties feel they need to address to appeal to parents across the UK.

Ask any parent with young children and they will tell you the childcare system is a nightmare to navigate. That nursery bills are too high, that it can feel that it doesn’t make sense to work and pay for childcare, and that it’s difficult to find childcare that works for your family. It’s an issue that unites parents from all backgrounds.

But the system is harder for the poorest families. This is despite the most disadvantaged children having the most to gain from quality childcare.

Affordable childcare isn’t just good for parents. It plays a decisive role in supporting children to get the best start in life. This is especially true for the poorest children, who are more likely to fall behind in their pre-school years. That’s why Save the Children is focused on closing the early learning gap between poor children and their better off classmates. Any government’s social justice agenda needs to start with getting support for these children right.

Corbyn’s plans are wide ranging and include providing 30 hours of free childcare for 2, 3 and 4 year olds, and increasing the numbers of graduate early years teachers in childcare settings.

In the last 24 hours we’ve seen articles criticising Labour’s proposals to boost the number of graduates in our nurseries, suggesting that early years staff don’t need graduate qualifications. Of course, we know that all early years staff have an important role to play in children’s development, and not everyone needs to be a graduate. But these articles miss the point. If we are serious about tackling social injustices, we must improve the quality of our nurseries. And early years teachers are the strongest marker of quality in early years settings.

When childcare is low quality, it has a limited positive effect on children’s outcomes. When it’s high quality, it can make a life-changing difference. So, it’s essential that any expansion of free childcare must go hand in hand with boosting the quality of provision.

Whilst this long-term vision from Labour is hugely welcome – and it is so encouraging that parties are battling it out to appeal to parents – the poorest children can’t wait. There are ways to improve support for families in the short term too.

Keeping the skilled childcare staff we’ve already got through providing better support for early years teachers who are just beginning their careers would be a start. And making sure childcare support through Universal Credit makes it worthwhile for mums to go back to work would be a game-changer for social mobility. Neither of these require a £4.8bn investment – the government could make progress on them overnight, at very little additional cost.

Clearly, the messy childcare system needs reform. But with the right investment, childcare can be an engine that boosts children’s life chances.

Corbyn has put down a marker to the Government because he knows childcare is a vote winner. I’m looking forward to the Conservative Party’s response in Birmingham next week!

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