Playing games with nurseries

New Labour has poured cash into childcare - so why is it still such a mess?

Julian Grenier

Topics Politics

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Margaret Hodge has been scrutinised for the way in which she dealt with reports of child abuse at Islington Council in the 1980s – and for her recent description of Demetrious Panton, who was abused in the care of the council, as an ‘extremely disturbed person’. Her policies as the first ever minister for children and young people have been interrogated much less. This is a pity, because they tell an important part of the New Labour story.

The UK government has prioritised the modernisation of public services for children under five and their families. It received a lamentable inheritance from 18 years of Conservative government: the lowest levels of publicly funded childcare in Europe. Following six years of energetic reform and expenditure, the government has brought about a situation where local authority subsidised provision has, according to the Daycare Trust, ‘reduced dramatically…from providing around 30 per cent of childcare places to less than 10 percent’ (1). So how have we ended up spending substantially more government money, yet receiving substantially less from the public sector?

In 1997 the government addressed a fragmented system of education and daycare for children under five. Typically local education authorities provided nursery schools and classes, which gave children either a morning or afternoon place of two-and-a-half hours per day. Additionally, social services departments operated daycare nurseries, generally for children deemed to be ‘at risk’. The schools provided education, the daycare nurseries care and protection.

This was an old-style public service, offered without regard for what families actually needed or wanted. Central government had laid down that young children should have two-and-a-half hours a day at nursery school – so they did, regardless of local circumstances and the needs or desires of local people. Social workers decided which children needed care and protection and took them into daycare – with the assumption that they did not need the opportunities to learn and develop that were on offer in nursery classes and schools.

By 1997, both sectors had suffered many years of low investment. Once state-of-the-art post-war buildings were crumbling away, with leaky roofs and rotting window frames. There is no doubt that the New Labour government propped up a system that was on the verge of collapse. Another Conservative government might well have seen the end of state-funded centres and schools for children under five.

The nursery voucher system introduced in the final years of the Major government had been planned to give parents ‘buying power’ to exercise their choice. In reality, primary schools moved in: they could take four- and even three-year-olds into their classes and turn a nice profit, because they did not have to make much extra outlay. In general, however, primary school classes weren’t adequately designed, staffed or equipped for very young children. Attempting to create a consumer-driven market for under fives education was bad for everyone concerned, and it drove many community nurseries and state nursery schools close to bankruptcy.

Although the New Labour government ended the ludicrous nursery voucher scheme, it never made a clean break from the political assumptions behind it. Faced with the reality that there were not enough daycare and education places for children in the UK, the government could have spent money on building up a large, state-run system like that of Sweden. Or it could have followed the Danish model, where one third of the education and daycare centres are funded by the state but run independently by local non-profit-making trusts. The government chose instead to follow a ‘Third Way’ and develop its own, unique strategy. Public money would continue to be routed to the private, profit-making sector. But instead of giving parents vouchers, the government gave large amounts of money straight to private nurseries through the so-called Nursery Education Grant.

The immediate effect of this subsidy was to reduce the fees paid by parents. The longer-term effect has been an unprecedented expansion of profit-making childcare businesses in the UK, propped up by government funding. At the same time, there has been a dramatic decline in the number of state-funded nursery schools and daycare centres. Big childcare businesses are booming under New Labour. Researchers at Market and Business Development predict ‘sustained strong growth’ in the nursery sector – estimating that the current meagre 10 per cent of places provided by the public sector will decline to just eight per cent by the end of the year. This figure does not simply reflect the growth of the private sector; it also shows a continuing fall in the actual numbers of local-authority-funded nursery places by four per cent over the year ahead (2).

This decline has taken place even though the government has put significant amounts of money into state-funded provision. One of the government’s first education programmes in 1997 was the establishment of a network of ‘Early Excellence Centres’ across the country, which were usually former nursery schools or daycare centres. They have received substantial additional funding from the government to bring together education, daycare and other services for families. This programme was introduced as a pilot project that would inform the whole future development of the sector. The actual outcome has been the development of an extraordinary inequality in state-funded provision. Sometimes on the same street there can be an Early Excellence Centre that receives three times more funding than another local-authority-operated centre.

As a result, while there has certainly been a lot of innovation in some parts of the state sector, the sector overall has declined. The funding for places in private nurseries, however, has created a substantial increase in the number of childcare places in the UK overall – up from 193,800 in 1997 to 383,200 this year. Families with enough money to pay for places in private nurseries have done well under New Labour.

In the government’s 2002 review of childcare it recognised that policies have mainly benefited more affluent families and done little to reduce the numbers of children and families living in poverty (3). New Labour’s response to this problem has been to create an increasingly complicated system of tax credits to subsidise low-paid parents. But this approach simply does not work.

Recent research in Hackney, London by Tami Toroyan and others from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has shown how the creation of an Early Excellence Centre provided more daycare places for local parents, and enabled many of them to take up jobs (4). In comparison, parents down the road who only had the option of a short day for their children in a nursery class were more likely to be unemployed.

But in virtually all cases, although the parents moved off benefits and into work, the family was actually no better off as a result. As one of the mothers commented: ‘I wanted to go back into work. It would have been 27 hours and I would have £107.10, but I would have got £100 taken off my Family Credit. I still would have had to pay £50 for rent and £15 council tax. Then there’s childcare, which is £45, and then I would be left with nothing. Even if you work full time you’re still going to be short of some money.’ (5)

Her comments seem a moderate response to a ridiculous state of affairs. The government promotes early childhood education and care services as the answer to social inequality, as if they were an inoculation against the knocks that poor children will experience later in their childhood and their lives. Yet these very services simply prop up inequalities, keeping Hackney families poor whether parents choose to work or not. In any case, the services themselves are founded on stark inequalities. The whole nursery sector would collapse tomorrow were it not sustained by an infantry of poorly paid nursery nurses and assistants. These are the people who are expected to help rectify child inequality and poverty – without regard to the fact that they are often paid less than the production line workers at Walkers Crisps (6).

But the social control agenda goes much further than this. The government has invested billions in its Sure Start programme, which is targeted at families with children under four. There is nothing to be said against those Sure Start programmes that have improved play and childcare facilities for young children, and given parents a stronger voice in how those services are organised. But too much of Sure Start is a seductive overture for an unprecedented attempt at social control. A common theme of Sure Start programmes is that parents need to be taught ‘parenting skills’ because parenting is such a demanding job. A typical example of this way of thinking comes from a course offered by the Danehouse and Stoneyholme Sure Start programme in Burnley: ‘being a parent is hard work and this course aims to help people with this difficult job.’ (7)

Is parenting really a ‘job’? A job is about selling your labour for money and creating some kind of saleable product for your employer. If you can get more money for your work then you might change job. When you improve your skills, you might look for promotion. None of this seems a useful analogy for bringing up children. In the sphere of parenting, the important values are affection, constancy, appreciation and love for its own sake. Being a parent is quite different to working in a job. Love is not a skill that can be taught, one step at a time. But once the notions take hold that parenting is a job and that the required skills can be taught, we may end up with the idea that the aim is to produce a certain type of product. Whatever happened to bringing up a child?

Sure Start is also meant to tackle child poverty – but here again the desire to control is barely hidden in the official rhetoric. Once there were poor families, now there are the ‘socially excluded’. The government defines social exclusion as ‘a shorthand term for what can happen when people or areas suffer from a combination of linked problems such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor housing, high crime environments, bad health and family breakdown’ (8). There used to be much simpler shorthand than this: being poor. But social exclusion shifts poverty, which is essentially a problem of public policy, into the private realm, where it becomes a problem of the individual family, child or parent.

This shift to the private realm is clearly apparent in the government-sponsored review of the PEEP Project, a programme for ‘socially excluded’ families with young children in and around Oxford (9). The review states that it is ‘essential to address the effects of low income’ on families with young children. It is notable that ‘addressing’ the low income itself is not even considered. The study continues by stating: ‘it is important to invest in studies that will allow a clearer understanding of the consequences of low income and how they can be overcome.’

Here is the rationale of the PEEP programme. Instead of ensuring that families have sufficient money to bring up their children, the government sponsors courses for parents about how to communicate with their babies. The PEEP project’s message for parents is jolly enough: ‘Here are some of the things that will make a real difference, right from the start: sharing a book every day, lots of songs and rhymes, listening games, playing with shapes and belonging to the library. Libraries love baby members!’ (10) But are these activities really the ones that make a significant difference to babies’ lives? I would rather opt for love, tender care and good company, combined with decent housing and good food. But these cannot be achieved by exhortation, manipulation and patronising parents as if they were eight-year-olds, as seems to be the PEEP approach.

Returning to Margaret Hodge: her actions as a political leader, rather than as a media figure, are interesting in this respect. During her maligned period as leader of Islington Council in the 1980s, Hodge did build something of lasting value – England’s most comprehensive local authority provision of childcare and education for children under five. This required political leadership, and building public demand for good, universal services. As minister for children and young people she has succeeded in grasping the problem that there is a lack of affordable childcare and other public services for families with young children. For the first time since the war, there is a realistic public debate about the merits of affordable childcare for all families.

But in the end, the problems we face are comparatively simple. England has a per capita income that is about the same as Sweden. Sweden is able to provide universal affordable childcare, England is not (11). Since 1997, Hodge has been involved in an extraordinary number of initiatives, pilots and reviews. It makes a fascinating contrast with the challenges faced by the post-war governments – both Labour and Conservative – who built up a huge new public education service. They created places for two million additional children and built more than 2600 new schools in the 15 years following the Second World War. Yet the government’s 1959 handbook on primary education does not emphasise the money spent, the policy reviews or the new initiatives. Instead it declares its confidence in the tradition of ‘independence and vitality amongst the teachers’ in England and puts the credit with them (12).

Today, the government has crushed this spirit among the teachers – and indeed among all public sector professionals. It has also helped to snuff out much of the public’s ambition. Who believes that a contemporary government could have the life, energy and confidence to achieve anything on the scale of the post-war educational reforms? However, there is no sense in looking fondly back at the past, to schools and centres for children that were patchy, underfunded and in a dreadful state of decline by 1997. I have three suggestions for future debate and direction.

First, the business model for delivering public services is not likely to work. Business plans, cashflow projections and costs per unit are likely to mark the death of any notion of professional prestige or sense of vocation in the public services. Cashflow projections are slapped on to neighbourhood nurseries like the emperor’s new clothes – everyone knows that they are a fiction, but nobody is telling.

Second, the early childhood education and care sector should be expanded by the government so that better services are developed for everyone. To date, initiatives have been patchy. There are communities where there is an Early Excellence Centre at one end of the street, and a crumbling old day nursery or voluntary-run playgroup at the other. State subsidy under this government has created a booming childcare business sector. There are many good places where the resourceful and the affluent can find high-quality education and care for their children. This satisfies the individual family’s pursuit of good quality services, but it does nothing to promote these as public services, for everyone.

Third, we should watch out for the confusion between the provision of a public service, and an unwarranted incursion into the family by the state. We would do well to remember the words of Donald Winnicott, the pioneering paediatrician and psychoanalyst, who warned in the 1950s that ‘whatever does not specifically back up the idea that parents are responsible people will in the long run be harmful to the very core of society’ (13).

Julian Grenier is the headteacher of a Nursery Centre in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) Towards Universal Childcare: Analysing childcare in 2003, Daycare Trust

(2) UK nursery education market research report, Market and Business Development, 2003

(3) See Government review of childcare – good news for children, parents and communities, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, 6 November 2002

(4) See Benefits of improved access to day care cancelled out by low-pay trap, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, 17 October 2003

(5) Paying off?, Mary Evans, Nursery World, 12 November 2003

(6) See Nursing suspicion, by Julian Grenier

(7) Parenting Skills through ESOL Course, Sure Start Daneshouse and Stoneyholme, 24 November 2003

(8) Social Exclusion Unit website

(9) The effects of the Peers Early Educational Partnership on children’s developmental progress (.pdf 695 KB), Department for Education and Skills, October 2003

(10) Parents section of the Peers Early Education Partnership website

(11) See Paying off?, Mary Evans, Nursery World, 12 November 2003

(12) Primary Education, Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1959

(13) The Child, the Family and the Outside World, Donald Woods Winnicott, 1991

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Topics Politics


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