“I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime” said children’s
minister Margaret Hodge’s after the 10-year child care strategy was
published. Of course she’s a politician, and so is prone to
exaggerate the significance of the government’s investment in child
care. But there is no doubt that the programme is ambitious, and
perhaps just as importantly the government has raised the political
profile of child care to the point where the Conservatives had to
respond with a package of their own proposals.
Central to New Labour’s policy is the promise of 2,400
children’s centres within three years, and an “aspiration” to
create enough by 2010 to reach every family in the country. But
why? What will children’s centres offer than existing services
don’t, or couldn’t with the right investment?
Hodge’s answer is “Integrated services – health, social care,
education and family support”. But in the next breath she concedes
that under the 10-year strategy there is no blueprint – children’s
centres will vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and in some
affluent areas they will not necessarily provide any
This lack of detail worries Stephen Burke, director of the Daycare
Trust, which has been campaigning for comprehensive provision of
children’s centres for several years.
“This strategy is a huge step forward, but there are questions
to be asked about the detail. For example, what money is going to
be available to provide the 3,500 children’s centres? And will
3,500 really cover the whole map?”
Burke is also concerned about the 10-year strategy’s suggestion
that not all children’s centres need provide childcare. “The vision
isn’t really spelt out in the 10-year strategy. What can you expect
to get? There will be a statutory duty on local authorities to
arrange to meet childcare needs, but will there be enough childcare
places, and how will they be spread?
Burke points out that the strategy is an unusually long term
one, so perhaps it is not surprising that the detail is a little
sketchy at this stage. But there is no doubt that the definition of
a children’s centre has undergone a transformation. Last April the
Sure Start Unit described the “core offer” of children centres as
“early education integrated with full day care” with provision for
children with special educational needs; parental outreach; family
support, including support for parents with special needs; health
services; a base for childminders; links with Jobcentre Plus,
colleges and training. Now it seems a children’s centre could be
little more than a source of information for parents about local
services, and a “hub” to help child care providers, including
childminders, to access training and support.
The reality is likely to be that in the poorest 20 per cent of
wards, there will be 1,700 full service children’s centres, though
services will not necessarily based on a single site. The extra
7,000 children’s centres now pledged for 2008 are expected to
extend coverage to the 30 per cent most disadvantaged wards,
reaching – in theory – 70 per cent of children in poverty. But the
bonus 1,100 children’s centres pledged by the prime minister when
he announced 3,500 by 2010 may well turn out to look more like an
enhanced, localised version of a children’s information centre than
a comprehensive, integrated childcare, education and family support
service. It’s certainly difficult to see how, if 1,700 children’s
centres will meet the needs of 20 per cent of neighbourhoods, 3,500
can reach every family in the country as Blair has suggested.
Sure Start’s 524 local programmes will be rebadged as children’s
centres and will not enjoy the generous funding they’ve had in the
past. Sure Start staff across the country have been meeting Naomi
Eisenstadt, Sure Start’s head, to express their concerns about
funding cuts, also about the loss of community and parental control
of local projects as local authorities take the reins. Eisenstadt
has pointed out that Sure Start was always a time-limited
programme, and that the new arrangements are fairer because
resources will be distributed across a wider group of disadvantaged
children. Currently, Sure Start reaches only a third of children in
poverty, and those who live even just yards outside of a Sure Start
boundary can get nothing. Hodge says local authorities will be
expected to show that parents are closely involved in running
services but the scepticism remains.
Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of the 10-year strategy
is the emphasis on raising the quality of early years care. The
£126m per year child care “transformation fund” doesn’t sound
very much, considering how far there is to go to achieve what the
government says it wants – “high quality provision with a highly
skilled child care and early years workforce, among the best in the
But Hodge believes she has won the argument against those who
believe child care quality is less important than quantity. She
says: “In 1997 child care was seen as important mainly as a way of
supporting mothers to enter the labour market. But we’ve shifted.
Now there is a recognition that quality of care is very important.
Putting poor children in poor quality child care actually makes
Ten year child care strategy
- Nine months paid maternity leave from April 07, aiming for 12
months by end of next parliament. Some entitlement can be
transferred from mother to father.
- Fifteen hours free high quality child care for all 3 and 4 year
olds by 2010.
- A wrap-around child care place for all children aged 3 to 14
between 8am and 6pm by 2010.
- £125m “transformation fund” every year from 2006 to invest
in childcare provision.
- New qualification and career structure for childcare
- Reforms of inspection and regulation of child care to improve
standards and provide more information to parents.
- Child care element of Working Tax Credit increased.
Sure Start local programmes versus Children’s
- 524 local programmes are all run from the Sure Start national
- Neighbourhood based so benefit only children within project’s
- Strong parent representation on local programme management
- Generous funding provided directly from the Sure Start national
- Outcome targets for parents’ and children’s health and
- 2,400 in the poorest 30 per cent of wards should reach 70 per
cent of poor children.
- Will reach more children.
- Run by local authorities.
- No ring fenced money.
- No universal blueprint.