15th March 2023 

The writing is on the wall— high quality, affordable and accessible early years education and childcare is an election-winning issue. Fawcett research shows that 75% of women in marginal constituencies said that affordable childcare is important to them when deciding which party to vote for, and a majority of men too (63%). It’s an issue that cuts across party lines, with 73% of people who intend to vote Labour and 72% of people who intend to vote Conservative saying that a political party caring about affordable childcare is important to them when deciding how to vote in a general election.

With that in mind, we are pleased to see that the government has listened to the early years sector in recognising that early years education and childcare is a fundamental issue for our economy and for society. But these are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the reforms that are needed.

We welcome the expansion of free childcare from the end of maternity leave, which we know is crucial to getting women into the workforce and tackling the gender pay gap. Investment in wrap-around care, as well as incentives for new childminders, is also very welcome. But no expansion will work without adequate funding, and quality of care needs to be at the heart of reforms. Critically, we need to ensure that nursery staff, childminders and nannies are recognised properly for the essential work that they do.

Reforming a broken system

Other countries with similar systems to the UK—including Australia, Canada and Ireland—have taken the opportunity to fundamentally reform their early years systems to ensure affordability, availability and quality. The changes announced by the government today are more about patching up a broken system. We know that many women will be delighted with more help with childcare costs. However, more fundamental reforms are needed to make this change sustainable. We need significantly more funding to ensure that the government funding to providers covers the actual costs that they incur, alongside a proper workforce strategy that includes higher pay for childcare workers, to improve retention. Both of these reforms are essential for driving up quality and better outcomes for children and parents.

Expansion of childcare from the end of maternity leave 

We have been calling for this very welcome reform. UK childcare fees are currently the joint most expensive in the OECD, and according to the Women’s Budget Group, 1.7 million women have been prevented from taking on more hours of paid work due to issues with accessing childcare. There is no question that access to affordable childcare increases women’s participation and productivity, as seen in Quebec.

However, there appears to be a significant shortfall in the money that will be provided from government to childcare and early years providers in order to cover this support. This means that providers are forced to cross subsidise these spaces with higher costs for parents who aren’t receiving free support, and also results in fewer spaces provided overall. Cheaper costs for some should not be provided at the expense of availability for others.

Universal credit reform

We are pleased to see progress here. Paying upfront will make a significant difference to parents locked out of work because they can’t afford the first month of childcare. Increasing the cap is useful, but we know that few families ever even receive up to the cap. We need to hear more from women on the ground about whether this reform will make a real difference.

Missing in action: quality of care 

Crucially, evidence suggests that rapid expansions in childcare must prioritise quality—or risk diminishing child development outcomes, particularly for the most disadvantaged children. This is more important than ever given setbacks in crucial learning and development for so many children throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is disappointing to see nothing in this budget about quality of care. Expanding free entitlement, while relaxing ratios, will water down quality. It won’t result in cheaper childcare—the sector has been clear on that. Instead, it will make a difficult job even tougher.

What’s more, we know that the sector is already under immense pressure and this will only be further exacerbated by the relaxation of ratios.  Again, the government has ignored the voices of a workforce – one that is made up of 95% women and 40% under-30, and whose jobs will continue to be underpaid and underappreciated. Average hourly wages are under the ‘living wage’, and many practitioners claim state benefits. No wonder so many of them are leaving—with long hours, inadequate working conditions and considerable amounts of paperwork all feeding a desire to leave for less demanding work. We call upon the government to urgently implement a Workforce Strategy which improves the pay and conditions of workers in the early years sector.

Today’s announcement highlights that our calls for change are gaining traction and momentum, but that there is more to do to make sure the diverse range of women’s voices are truly heard. We urge the Government to outline how they plan to make up for this funding shortfall, as a failure to do so could bring the sector to a standstill with demand outstripping supply. And to Labour—we know early years’ reform is a priority commitment. We urge them to ensure their intentions are matched with more significant and sustainable funding, and with recognition for the women-dominated workforce that is at the heart of all early years aspirations.