Under 5 Magazine Editor Rachel Lawler catches up with shadow minister for the early years and MP for Batley & Spen, Tracy Brabin. This article originally appeared in the Alliance's Under 5 membership magazine.
Are you excited to be Labour’s new shadow early years minister?
I’m really enjoying life as the minister. The sector has been incredibly welcoming and very honest about its concerns. My door will always be open to those who are passionate about making the first years of life the best they can be and I know I’m not going to be short of offers.
What experience do you have of the early years sector?
Well, I’m a mum of two young women myself. I was also one of Britain’s best known mums as Tricia Armstrong on Coronation Street for a few years and I know what it’s like juggling a job, progressing your career and bringing your children up the best you possibly can. I haven’t worked in the sector but hopefully I can bring a clean slate to the role – I’m here to listen, to learn and to offer the solutions we all want to see.
Do you have any concerns about the 30-hours ‘free childcare’ offer?
The 30-hours offer has been the top issue landing in my mailbox since I was appointed. To be clear – I want the policy to be a success. I think it could transform the lives of thousands of children and allow parents to work the hours they want but we also need it to work for the sector. My overriding concern is that there are still so many unanswered questions. Are providers going to be able to remain viable with the funding settlement from government? Well, a lot are telling me that they won’t. What’s going to happen to the children whose parents can’t afford additional charges? I understand that settings feel forced to charge for additional services, such as food, but what must not happen is a two-tier system where poorer parents can’t find a place because the Tories are too tight to fund their own policies properly.
Many providers are concerned about funding rates. How do you think these concerns should be addressed?
I recently conducted a survey and 68% of settings felt that providing the 30-hours offer would have a negative financial impact on their business. That shouldn’t be acceptable. I’ve held many conversations with sector leaders, including Neil Leitch of the Alliance, so I’m in no doubt about the potential impact the funding rates are going to have.
In terms of how we address it, I think to freeze funding rates until 2020 is irresponsible – the government should commit to an annual funding evaluation and review that meets the needs of settings. One of our manifesto pledges was to use capital funding for the first two years to make sure the transition to 30-hours was as smooth as possible – the government would do well to take up that suggestion.
"I think to freeze funding rates until 2020 is irresponsible – the government should commit to an annual funding evaluation and review that meets the needs of settings."
Do you think the government is doing enough to support children with special educational needs in early education?
I’ve heard some really sad stories about children with special educational needs accessing early education – parents who feel that their child has been locked out of childcare and settings that want to provide, but feel that it’s financially impossible. Is the government doing enough? In short, absolutely not! The additional funding in many cases won’t even scratch the surface of what’s required. It wouldn’t be acceptable in the mainstream school system so it shouldn’t be acceptable in the early years. This is an area I’ll be pursuing in the coming weeks.
Labour’s 2017 election manifesto pledged to create a graduate-led workforce for the early years. How would you implement this?
Not only do we want to move towards graduate-led, but we also want to see wages rise. Such dedicated and important workers deserve a fair wage. I want to be clear that we’ve got some excellent providers that aren’t graduates at the moment and I don’t want them to feel discouraged in any way. I’m really looking forward to building on this offer in the coming months through research and conversations.
The Labour Party also pledged to extend 30-hours to all two-year-olds. How would you plan to implement this?
Again, I’m a big supporter of this policy too. I think access to high-quality childcare would benefit two-year-olds and allow parents, especially mums, to get back into their careers without the financial concerns that can sometimes make it impossible.
"Early years can and should be transformative to young lives"
Are you concerned about the number of Sure Start children’s centres closing?
Sure Start Centres were an incredible step forward for our childcare system. It’s still incredible to me that a government could be so callous as to let so many close on their watch. If the government wants to show that it’s on the side of the people, it needs to take stock of the situation, guarantee that no more will close and announce a policy aimed at reopening centres that have closed. I won’t hold my breath though.
Why do you think early education is so important?
Early years can and should be transformative to young lives – it’s of paramount importance and we’ve got to get it right. I’m determined to be part of that process and I know your readers will be behind me all the way too because they want what’s best for children.
I’d like to repeat my message from before: I’m here to learn from you, my door will always be open.