For millions of under-fives and their families, more than a decade of Conservative rule has been devastating. Conservative-led governments have shut more than 1,000 Sure Start children centres, underfunded and undervalued early education, and cut vital social security payments. The 2021 budget announcement of £500m over three years for early years, including family hubs – the unsatisfactory replacements for Sure Start centres – will not change the fact that our country is failing the youngest in society. Inequalities open up early on, poverty scars deeply, and life chances are cut short.
Labour must offer a clear, future-focused, evidence-based and comprehensive plan for early years in order to meet the scale of the challenge. Statistics show that more than two million families with children under five are living in poverty, and poverty is rising fastest for our youngest children. Every year, 185,000 children start school not ready to learn, with children from ethnic minority backgrounds, children with special educational needs and disabilities, and children from low-income families more likely to be behind their peers. And there are significant regional inequalities – a child qualifying for free school meals in London is 30 per cent more likely to be at the expected standard by the end of reception than a child in the Leeds city region, Greater Manchester or on Merseyside.
Unless these inequalities from birth are tackled, our country’s path to a more prosperous and fairer future will be barred.
In July this year, the cross-party Early Years Commission, co-chaired by Sharon Hodgson MP and Edward Timpson MP with the secretariat provided by the Fabian Society and the Centre for Social Justice, set out a long-term plan to give every child the best start in life and tackle inequality. The recent budget and spending review fell a long way short of what is needed to deliver this ambition.
The commission argued that society must make young children its top priority by tackling child poverty and making sure our public services deliver for families. Children deserve coherent, relevant, familiar and well-funded support. We need leadership at every level of government and a commitment to ensuring no child or family misses out on the help they deserve.
The commission also argued that every parent must have what they need to make their home a nurturing and safe environment. That starts by ensuring parents can spend meaningful time with their child, free from financial pressure. The Labour party is already committed to ensuring current rights to parental leave are available from day one of employment. But it should go further by increasing compulsory leave for mothers and fathers, introducing new use-it-or-lose-it entitlements and an additional 60 weeks of shared parental leave, and substantially boosting parental pay. These are family-friendly policies that will make a real difference to millions who are not currently entitled to leave or cannot afford to take it. And health visitor services must be funded to support all parents, assess the development of young children and provide extra help to those who need it.
Public services in the community are vital to improving health outcomes, psychological wellbeing, school readiness, and narrowing the educational attainment gap. Yet they have been neglected for far too long. Labour can promise to change that by investing in early education, improving the sustainability of providers and ensuring the most disadvantaged children gain the biggest benefits from what is on offer. Whether we call them Sure Start, children’s centres or ‘family hubs’, what matters is that the infrastructure and funding exists to provide universal help, targeted interventions and integrated support for families between conception and the age of five.
Investing in early years is not just the right thing to do, it is politically popular too: polling for the Early Years Commission found that only 19 per cent of English adults would oppose more funding for services that help young children and families if it were paid for by increasing taxes or by cuts to other services, compared to 43 per cent who would support it. And some 56 per cent agreed that investing in early years services would have a positive impact on their local area.
Labour leader Keir Starmer says he wants Britain to be “the best place to grow up in”. This prospect speaks to our Labour values, and the values of the British people. The current government will never deliver on this; the recent budget and spending review, on top of their record over the past 11 years, prove it. It will be up to the next Labour government to ensure every child has the best start in life.