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Childcare: Ensuring a good start in life

Early years education was unfinished business from previous Labour governments and putting in place a high quality, comprehensive service was one of the great achievements of our last term in office. In their two decades, the Thatcher and Major governments had...


Early years education was unfinished business from previous Labour governments and putting in place a high quality, comprehensive service was one of the great achievements of our last term in office.

In their two decades, the Thatcher and Major governments had failed to keep up with the changes in society – and the inequalities. When the Tories lost power, 3 million people had been on benefits for two years or more, one in five children had no working parent, and too many left school with no basic skills.

Poverty and inequality had increased sharply during the Conservative years. As a report by Lupton et al from the LSE has observed: “The proportion in poverty… remained almost twice as high in 1996/7 as it had been at the start of the 1960s. Inequality… was also at record levels.”

Nursery education had been discussed by government since the 1960s. The Wilson government published the Plowden report which called for universal nursery education.

In 1972, the then education secretary, Margaret Thatcher announced that: “Within 10 years nursery education should become available without charge to children of three or four whose parents wished them to have it.” The main purpose was “to enable children to learn and not to provide a daycare service”. Clearly, no connection was made between childcare or early years and the desire for women to work. In the end, the policy was never delivered.

By the time Mrs Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, the Tories had lost any desire to pursue early years education, and rejected childcare to support work. In 1980, social security minister George Young said: “In general, I do not accept that it is the state’s job to provide day care to enable parents of young children to go out to work.”

The Thatcher government eventually gave local councils the power, but no duty, to establish nursery classes. As a result, childcare and nursery education provision was patchy. In an era of substantial pressure on public services, as the Conservatives bore down on public spending, the development of municipal childcare provision, largely by Labour councils, occurred in spite of, not because of, government policy.

At the tail end of their 18 years in office, the Conservatives had few coherent policies aimed at tackling disadvantage or poverty. They failed to see patterns of intergenerational poverty. They knew that more women wanted to work, but failed to see the lack of affordable childcare as a barrier to women’s aspirations, or as a mechanism to achieve equality in the workplace. By the mid-1990s, less than two thirds of women had entered the workforce, and growth had plateaued.

Tentative steps were taken at the last minute towards early years education. A pilot nursery voucher scheme was trialled in four local authority areas. In a sleight of hand, the government ‘funded’ the policy mainly by reducing the funds allocated to councils. The pilot scheme ended in April 1997 and the Major government left with public spending at a historic low and no national strategy for childcare.

Meanwhile the demand for childcare for working mothers had grown, with sustained campaigning by women’s groups, trade unions, employers and childcare organisations for the state to play a greater role in the supply and affordability of childcare as well as other family-friendly policies. Alongside this was the rising number of lone parents unable to find and stay in work. The destiny for them and their children seemed to be a lifetime of poverty.

During the Conservative years there had been a blossoming of “municipal feminism” – a wave of policies in Labour councils influenced by the women’s movement. Municipal childcare provision including workplace nurseries were a product of this thinking. The collective impact of Labour women was a sea change in our party’s policy. Traditional opposition to a minimum wage had been replaced by support for it; we developed policy on paid maternity leave, equal pay, and childcare.

By 1986, Neil Kinnock, then party leader, was able to pledge: “We will make nursery education available for all three – and four-year-olds whose parents want this opportunity.” And after the 1997 victory, New Labour was to go much further.

For the incoming Labour government here was the opportunity to tackle poverty and inequality in a profound way in response to the legacy of the preceding Tory years.

Early in its first term, the Labour government reaffirmed its commitment to women and children, especially the most disadvantaged. The 101 Labour women arriving in parliament included many young parents, but among the 400 all-party parliamentary groups, none existed on childcare. The new generation of Labour MPs, women and men, were to address the vacuum in this and other areas of social and economic policy.

Among a host of initiatives the Labour government established a social exclusion unit, a national childcare strategy, a cross-departmental ministerial group on family policy, a new deal for lone parents and a policy to reduce teenage pregnancy rates.

The mission was articulated in a report that laid the foundations for Labour’s early years policy. Opportunity for All: Tackling Poverty and Social Exclusion said in its introduction: “Our aim is to end the injustice which holds people back and prevents them from making the most of themselves. That means making sure that all children, whatever their background and wherever they live, get a first-class education… Put simply, our goal is to end child poverty in 20 years.”

From its first days, the contrast between Labour’s commitment and the neglect of the Major years was obvious.

The ad-hoc voucher policy was replaced by an entitlement to a fully-funded part-time place in nursery education for every four-year-old. By funding the new offer across a range of childcare settings both public, private and charitable, the government underpinned a new approach. The goals for early years policy were threefold:

  • Improving the education and the outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Removing the barriers to women gaining work or training to boost the UK labour force.
  • Reducing child poverty.

The power of local authorities to provide pre-school education was replaced with a duty to provide sufficient places, if not within their schools, then with partners.

Unlike the previous administration, the Labour government built the extra funding for early years into a dedicated schools grant and also required the inequalities in funding between different types of providers to be ended by 2010/11.

Looking at evidence from the Clinton administration in the United States, Labour created Sure Start – an innovation in family policy which brought together health, education and family support with childcare – to intervene early in a child’s life and support mother and child together. At a Sure Start centre a child could be in a nursery, while mum was attending parenting or literacy classes in the same building. With outreach and easy access to related services, this was family intervention at community level. Starting with “trailblazer” pilots in 1998, by 2010, Labour established 3,500 Sure Start children’s centres.

The new early years guarantee for four-year-olds, was the first of many steps to establishing a comprehensive early years approach. It provided a national standard offer of a free place – a morning or afternoon session every day, totalling 12.5 hours, for 33 weeks. By 2004, the service was extended to cater all three-years-olds; and by 2006, the entitlement was upped to 15 hours for 38 weeks. By 2009, 10 to 15 hours of early education was also offered to the 25 per cent most disadvantaged two-year-olds.

To lead the national childcare strategy, Margaret Hodge MP was appointed as the first minister for children, a post that continues to this day.

By 2010, Labour had shifted the centre of gravity such that all parties were competing with an early education offer, which following the election, led to Labour’s proposal for 15 hours of free childcare being rolled out, which the Tories took credit for.

At the 2015 general election, Labour offered 25 hours free childcare to working parents, fully-costed. The Tories pledged 30 hours to an estimated 600,000 households, only to tighten the criteria reducing the numbers to 390,000, and so the cost. Nearly two years on from this manifesto pledge, the Tories are now not delivering this promise and instead creating uncertainty in the early years system.

Labour had modernised and feminised children and family policy. Twenty years ago, childcare and family policy would never have been central campaign policies for the two main parties; the fact that they are now is down to Labour.

Childcare and equality

The 1997 Labour government’s package of childcare and tax credits freed more women to go to work, and by 2002 the proportion of women at work had risen to a record 69.5 per cent. Crucial to this was the growth of private day nurseries.

The establishment of the early years foundation stage led to a pre-school curriculum to standardise early years education. This curriculum drove up the quality of pre-school provision and increased professionalism, in a sector that had been viewed by some as low-skilled work.

As government funding of early years education and tax credits for childcare operated across public and private sectors, both could deliver the curriculum. The private sector could develop its staff whilst offering both care and early learning for the children of working parents.

The introduction of childcare tax credits, alongside a new deal for lone parents, changed the relationship with parents who were largely on benefits, with few skills. While their children learned social skills, women were gaining workrelated skills.

Breakfast clubs were established, starting in the most deprived neighbourhoods. The logic was simple – a well-fed child would learn better.

Ministers realised that the school day did not match the working day; and the concept of 8am–6pm schools was developed through the extended schools programme. For many parents this could provide the quality wrap-around childcare for school age children, once “latch-key kids”.

Sadly, the programme was never fully embedded. The in-coming coalition government paid lip service to the policy, removing the core element of childcare provision in primary schools, scrapping the ring-fenced budget and incorporating the funding into the dedicated schools grant which was then cut by the Tories.

The use of childcare tax credits to meet the bulk of childcare costs to support parents in employment reinforced Labour’s belief in welfare to work. For us work was the key to addressing poverty. “Work is the most important route out of low income,” stated Opportunity for All. For Labour, childcare tax credits were a hand-up, not a handout. Government would ‘help people to help themselves’.

These policies were not cheap, but government research showed that every extra woman entering the workforce was saving society £20,000 a year.

By 2010, the proportion of lone parents in the workforce was at a record high. Labour’s childcare and early years policies were central to this social change. Active welfare to work policies could not have worked without the childcare component, something that previous Tory governments had failed to grasp, but no government will ever lose sight of again.

Changing outcomes

Labour changed the landscape of early years services and support for families.

It provided a universal entitlement to early years education, a childcare infrastructure, and a parental expectation that was impossible to reverse. In doing so, it developed both a curriculum for pre-school education and a trained workforce for delivering it. The impact was dramatic. In 1994 only five per cent of under fives were in nursery schooling. By 2010 the figure had soared to 94 per cent of three and four-year-olds. Expansion of childcare places was equally dramatic, peaking at 838,000 in 2008, up 36-fold from its 1997 level.

The national childcare strategy required substantial ongoing investment: it was never an inexpensive policy. This was forthcoming from Labour, and by 2006, the Institute for Fiscal Studies noted that ‘the UK had the second highest level of spending per pupil in the pre-primary sector amongst the 26 OECD countries’. In 2010 the IFS also noted that real increases in spending on the under 5s in England rose by 6.1 per cent a year for every full year of the Labour government.

As the Lupton/LSE research concluded: ‘For young children, employment rates among lone parents improved… Child poverty fell from 27 per cent in 1996/7 to 17.5 per cent in 2010/11.’

One could argue that such trends could have happened naturally, but the previous 18 years of failed trickle-down showed that an active government strategy was decisive. We would argue that childcare, early years and Sure Start were crucial to achieving those outcomes.

The government’s programme to eradicate child poverty and boost women’s role in society was fuelled by a 60 per cent increase in public spending over the lifetime of the government; and 78 per cent increase in education spending. Half of the increase in the social security budget went to children, and in-work benefits were raised in line with earnings.

As one element of a huge government agenda, it has stood the test of time. The true test of social policy changes is whether they leave a legacy, not least whether subsequent governments adopt rather than repeal, the heart of the policy.

Early years education is now embedded in our school and childcare system. Childcare tax credits, and their successor under universal credit, underpinning childcare costs, have survived. Sure Start has been undermined by the coalition and Tory governments but children centres are still hanging on, though with only a shadow of their previous reach and capacity. Nearly 800 centres have closed since 2010.

The past seven years have seen a stalling and fragmentation, a withering of initiative as a result of lack of government ambition reinforced by the constraints on spending after the global economic crash.

Labour’s challenge remains to refine and extend this agenda to fulfil the social purpose we identified in 1997 of combatting poverty and inequality and improving the life chances of every child.

Childcare and family-friendly policies must respond to new pressures in a labour market that for many is more insecure than it was 20 years ago. Paid paternity leave, the right to request flexible hours and the move to shared parental leave all play their part in creating a more equal and balanced role between parents, although in reality, women still juggle the lion’s share of parental and domestic duties.

As public policy makers focus on creating a modern industrial strategy where does childcare provision sit? Should it be an infrastructure priority along with broadband, housing and transport? Will future skills shortages post-Brexit require more women to enter the jobs market?

Whilst the amount of support to families with childcare costs has increased, for many it is still too expensive and bureaucratic. Many childcare providers are being asked by the state to double the hours of nursery education without being fully funded. The danger of this development is that private nurseries risk closure or parents face greater costs. This could result in some nurseries refusing to take children for the free 30 hours, resulting in a divisive two-tier nursery system.

In the 21st century it must be the ambition of a future Labour Britain to provide a universal entitlement to childcare that is simpler, more flexible and affordable.

This article won a Jenny Jeger prize for shorter writing 2017


Caroline Flint MP

Caroline Flint is the Labour MP for Don Valley.


Sharon Hodgson MP

Sharon Hodgson is the Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West and is the Shadow Minister for Public Health.


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