The best start

sure-start-logoBy JoAnne Rust / JoAnne rust

Let me take you back in time, to the bygone age of 2003. A Labour Government had set out its strategy for childcare, a choice for parents about the best start for their children. Sure Start Children’s Centres would be just one part of the childcare provision that offered more than the 2.5 hours a day that was all that on offer at that time. Flexibility, availability, quality and, absolutely vital, affordability.

The message was clear, every child was to have the best possible start in life. And so Children’s Centres were set up: In phase 1 children’s centres were developed to serve families living in the 20% most disadvantaged wards. In phase 2, local authorities had planned to ensure all of the most disadvantaged families had access to children centre services – families in the 30% most disadvantaged areas. Finally, phase 3 were Universal Centres developed to serve families outside the most disadvantaged areas, those Cameron referred to as “sharp- elbowed middle classes” in 2010. But as vital as Children’s Centres were in providing a whole host of services to support parents and carers, they weren’t all that was there.

For decades now (I don’t want to say “remember the war”, but…) in towns and villages across the country, childcare has been provided by trained staff, some are parents who got into childcare through having children themselves, but others have opted to enter the profession as a formal carer choice. These small and voluntary run groups have been heavily reliant on both funding and support provided by local government. The part they have played in supporting parents and carers back into work has never been fully acknowledged. County councils did provide staff to ensure these groups, which are led by a committee of volunteers, were well run and managed. But, under first the Coalition and now a Tory government, this type of essential “backroom” support is being eroded, much like the children’s centres themselves. And now, another announcement – that there is to be 30 hours of free childcare. Amazing, but without the supporting mechanism needed to help make this pipedream a reality, those in the rural villages, which can barely sustain what they’re offering at the moment, are never going to be able to make this work. Parents and carers who work full-time need full-time childcare, plus some, but village settings can’t offer this because there are too few parents to make it viable.

So, how would a Labour government make it work if the Tories can’t? Childcare, free at the point of delivery would be a way to actually ascertain if both parents actually want to work. Properly valuing childcare and those who work within it, not just by decent pay, but by the recognition which goes with other occupations that serve a similar purpose. Funding for settings which provide childcare set at an appropriate rate – rural or deprived areas eligible for higher funding levels. And finally, and for me, vital, is the acknowledgement that this service is an absolutely essential part of any business plan and thus, those who need the workers, need to fund the services that staff it. It’s not hard, it’s not difficult, business relies on people to staff it and so they need to start funding what’s needed to make it happen.

Oh, if only they’d take notice!

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