Q&A: Tracy Brabin

Editor Rachel Lawler speaks to Tracy Brabin, shadow early years minister, about Labour’s proposed plans for the early years sector. This piece originally appeared in the November/December issue of Under 5 magazine, which is available for Alliance members to read online in the members' area.
The Labour Party has promised a “radical expansion” of the current government’s childcare offer if elected at the next general election. The party says that its plans will help to “dramatically raise standards of childcare” in England.
First unveiled in a speech by leader Jeremy Corbyn at the party’s national conference in September, the plans include:
  • an extension of the 30-hours offer to all two-, three- and four-year-olds
  • an increase in the funding rate to £7.35 an hour
  • a subsidy for additional hours purchased by parents, with low-income families paying nothing and those on the highest incomes paying up to £4 an hour
  • creating a new online portal for all funding, which will be paid directly to providers
  • a requirement for all practitioners to have at least a level 3 qualification, or be working towards one
  • an increase in the number of staff qualified to level 4 or above from 20% to 45%
  • a move towards a “graduate-led workforce”
  • establishing a national pay scale for early years staff
  • introducing a requirement for one SENCO for every 100 children
  • recruiting 150,000 additional staff over seven years to help increase the ratio of staff to children.
Corbyn said: “Opportunity matters most in the earliest years of life. It is a crucial time to open up children’s life chances. Driving up standards of childcare will make that vital difference for millions of children.”
Under 5 has spoken to Tracy Brabin, shadow early years minister, for some more detail on these proposals and how the party plans to bring about these changes if elected.

The current 30-hours offer has come under criticism from many providers. Do you think the Labour Party’s scheme will get a better response?

I fully understand that many providers have found the introduction of the government’s 30-hours policy difficult. I’ve been one of your biggest supporters in your campaigning efforts for support and a better deal. And those meetings I’ve held and those visits I’ve made have informed an important part of our policy making process.
We’ve really listened and produced an exciting package of policy which pays providers a fair rate – £7.35 an hour, provides for families with the introduction of subsidised childcare and makes sure that no child is left behind by making our funded hours universally available.
It's for all these reasons and more that I believe that we’ve had an excellent response from the sector so far, and if in government, those same policies will prove popular in practise.

Do you think Labour’s new policy will be beneficial for children?

Absolutely. We have a social mobility crisis in this country. There’s concrete evidence to show that children who show up to their first day of school, having already fallen behind their peers, may never catch up.
I’ve said many times that when in government, I’ll put opportunity at the heart of what we do. Better paid staff to help with retention, higher funding rates to support providers and transitioning to a graduate-led workforce are all intended to help children achieve as much as possible in the early years and beyond.
Of course, the biggest single difference is that our funded hours will be available to all children, meaning the poorest – who are often the very ones who benefit the most from early years education – are no longer excluded.

How much do you estimate that this policy will cost?

We’ve been very open and transparent about the figures. We’ll invest an additional £5.3 billion a year in the early years. That’s £500 million on Sure Start and £4.8 million on extending the 30-hours offer, transitioning to supply-side funding, introducing subsidised childcare and more.
It sounds like a life-changing amount and it is. We’re incredibly proud to be the only political party offering this investment in our future generations.

How will the subsidised childcare offer work in practise?

Labour will be providing subsidised support for the hours that families require. We won’t put an upper limit in place because we know that families will use what’s best for them and their children. It will be up to PVI settings to decide whether they want to partake in government policies, including free hours and subsidised childcare. I certainly expect that the majority will offer these incredible opportunities.

Will early years settings be able to charge for additional services?

Additional costs on funded hours is certainly something I am very aware of –providers have told me that they wouldn’t be in business without them, but on the other hand I’ve had families tell me that they struggle to take advantage of funded hours because of them.
The truth is that this is something we’re still looking at and considering. We should have an answer soon, but I would say that I think the funding on offer is a very significant uplift and I certainly wouldn’t expect the need for additional fees to be as high.

How does Labour plan to support children with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND)?

I’ve heard some truly heart-breaking cases of children who have high levels of need being sent straight to the bottom of the waiting list and staying there. That’s not right and it has got to stop. But equally, we need to make sure that settings have the right resources in place to support these children.
Our modelling shows that one special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) per 100 children would sufficiently cover all children in receipt of Disability Living Allowance, as well as being able to support children with additional needs that have not yet been diagnosed.
This bold policy will radically change and improve SEND provision in the early years.

How will you support current staff that aren’t yet qualified to level 3?

Current staff working in the sector are absolutely crucial to our plans. Their experience and passion must be retained. I’m aware that 79% of staff in group-based settings are already qualified to level 3, and there aren’t going to be any sudden, overnight changes.
As the funding rates are increased, we’ll give settings the opportunity to invest in upskilling and training staff. This will take place over several years and qualifications are unlikely to become compulsory until the last two years of the seven-year transitional period.

How do you plan to increase the number of staff qualified to level 4 and above?

I think having more staff in training and trained to a higher level is good for children and supports staff so they enjoy their work and perform better. It’s a win, win.

There’s also clear evidence that having higher qualified staff improves outcomes, which is in everyone’s interest. But we also want to promote the early years as a career choice and improving training opportunities is a great way of doing that.

Likewise, how do you plan to ‘shift to a graduate-led workforce’?

Much like with the level 3, there won’t be any sudden changes out of the blue. There will be time for these changes to be implemented.
For graduates entering the workforce, they need to know there will be jobs for them once they’re qualified and with the increased funding there will be. We also need to make sure there are progression opportunities for graduates.
But there is a wider opportunity here to really sing about how rewarding a career in early years education is – much like what already exists for teachers. Alongside increasing job opportunities and pay, we need to encourage the best and brightest to come and stay in the sector. I believe with our policies we have a real chance of achieving that goal.

Do you plan to consult with the sector further?

Of course. We’ve laid out our intentions for government, but we are absolutely determined to get this right. I’m hoping to survey settings soon. I regularly meet with key stakeholders, including Neil Leitch from the Alliance, and visit settings across the country.
What I would say to anyone reading this who has something to say about our proposals is: please don’t be a stranger. My email address is tracy.brabin.mp@parliament.uk and I’m always happy to listen. The response to what Jeremy Corbyn laid out has been overwhelmingly positive but I know that this brilliant early years sector is diverse in the way it works and it’s requirements and I am always happy to listen. 
This article originally appeared in the Alliance's Under 5 membership magazine. Find out more about the magazine, request your free taster copy, or sign up to the newsletter mailing list here.