The waiting game
Leading lights from the early years sector have been out in force at a succession of events this week – most planned on the assumption that, surely, the Government would have released its responses to the Childcare Commission and the Nutbrown Review by now.
But no! And so on Wednesday evening, we all duly trooped to Admiralty House for Deputy PM Nick Clegg’s reception ‘to celebrate the expansion of childcare across the UK’. There were beautiful stately surroundings; there was great company; there was fine wine; there were tiny, perfectly-formed canapes on silver trays (thank you very much, Mr Clegg).
However, there was also an overwhelming sense of ‘why are we here?’ from the assembled early years luminaries. There had been no announcement. It was becoming obvious that Mr Clegg, David Cameron, George Osbourne and Danny Alexander were disagreeing madly on childcare tax breaks, and it might all not be resolved before the Budget.
Mr Clegg told me that he had had another meeting that day with Cameron et al, and that progress was being made, and accompanied his claim with a well-practised smile. He then gave a short speech about nothing much – well, he did talk about the two-year-olds free places, but we know all that already, and what could he say, really?
More than one early years leader admitted that the waiting, rumour and counter-rumour were now actually getting boring. Childcare minister Elizabeth Truss said she was impatient to release the Nutbrown/qualifications/ratios/regulation plans (although the response might well not be what she is hoping for!).
If the childcare tax break plan is ultimately abandoned, that will certainly please many like the Resolution Foundation, who have pointed out that higher earners would be the major beneficiaries. But what would be proposed instead that would truly help struggling families and providers, and would really start to sort out the costly and complicated funding of childcare? The fear is that we will end up with more tinkering and mess.
The Childcare Commission could have been an opportunity to have a fundamental rethink of early childhood services, their purpose, their structure and their funding, but so far we seem to have achieved a Coalition scrap, the prospect of a ratio change that will please neither providers nor parents, and a few plates of (very high quality) canapes!