Cathy Ashton is passionate about the government’s early years strategy but doesn’t pretend it’s all plain sailing. Frances Rickford reports.

Cathy Ashton is passionate about the government’s early
years strategy but doesn’t pretend it’s all plain
sailing. Frances Rickford reports.

Cathy Ashton seems to truly love her job. Unlike some ministers
who get by with only the sketchiest knowledge of their area, Ashton
seems formidably well informed and passionately interested in what
she’s doing. She is the minister responsible for the new Sure
Start unit, which covers not only the original Sure Start
programme, but all child care and pre-school education services,
plus the special educational needs brief at the Department for
Education and Skills.

Ashton is proud that this is the first national child care
strategy to be introduced in England, and proud that Gordon Brown
has committed a whopping £1.5bn to early years provision in
the current four-year spending period. Some 650,000 new child care
places have already been created, due to rise to 900,000 by next
March. By 2006, there should also be children’s centres for
650,000 children in the most disadvantaged areas. There are already
453 Sure Start local schemes and, says Ashton, all four year olds
and most three year olds can now get a place in a free nursery
class or school.

But Ashton is only too well aware that delivery of the
government’s child care strategy depends on having the people
to do it. The child care review estimated that the number of staff
will need to grow by around 8 per cent a year to meet targets. But
the government’s own research has indicated that low pay and
low status are major hurdles for recruitment in the

sector. So how can the nut be cracked without a hefty government
subsidy to raise pay?

Ashton’s room for manoeuvre here is strictly limited by
the chancellor. She argues that childcare tax credits should
increase the amount parents can offer for child care, and that
child care providers could cut their costs (but pay their staff
more) if they are able to house themselves in school grounds – and
make use of school facilities like playgrounds when they are not
being used by pupils. But she is also hoping more people can be
attracted into child care by raising its profile and professional
status. This is the reasoning behind the new standards for
childminders announced last month which will bring them into line
with nursery workers by banning smacking children and smoking in
front of them. She is also looking to improve training for child
care workers. “Government can make a major contribution, arguably
the leading contribution, to providing better opportunities for
people to develop their skills.”

She sees Sure Start Month as part of the recruitment campaign.
One of the aims is to “celebrate the quality of what we do for our
children” says Ashton. “It’s about people feeling that they
are part of a bigger picture and raising their self-esteem as
members of this profession.” It’s also intended to promote
the whole child care strategy to parents and to make them aware of
services in their neighbourhoods.

Sure Start Month is being funded by the government but led by
Kids Clubs Network with other voluntary sector agencies also
involved, but the focus will be on local activities and events.

Ashton acknowledges that the child care strategy is far from
perfect. Disabled children, for example, have special needs which
are not currently being met. Both a lack of child care providers
willing and able to care for disabled children, and the high cost
of the care, means parents of disabled children are shut out of
employment and their children, quality child care. “What I am
thinking about is what more we can do to support families with
disabled children. I’ve got some of my staff working on that
now, both in terms of how we can support them with the higher cost
of child care and how we can make sure there is a supply of people
who can offer high quality child care.”

The Sure Start Unit straddles the DfES and Department for Work
and Pensions, and Ashton makes no secret of the objective of
getting more parents into employment. She also has to contend with
the concern – strengthened by advice that babies should be
exclusively breastfed for the first six months – that young
children are best cared for by their mothers. Instead she says
families should make up their own minds. “People need realistic
choices, and we should support them in making those choices and
make sure their children get the best experience possible.”

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