Does Jeremy Hunt Hate Children?
He wants to turn nurseries into battery farms.
by Edie Miller
21 March 2023
I woke up one morning last week to a push notification that momentarily caused all the tension to leave my body. “Chancellor to promise 30 hours of childcare a week for one and two-year-olds,” it read. I have two children aged three and one, and my largest household expense is childcare, by a huge margin. For a few golden minutes, I thought one of my biggest stresses was about to be at least somewhat alleviated. In my heart of hearts, however, I knew it wasn’t as simple as that.
Last year I wrote for Novara Media about Britain’s broken childcare system, where a decade of underfunding and a system seemingly designed to deter use has left parents and nursery workers struggling to make ends meet. A cash injection alone won’t solve the problem.
The £4bn promised in this year’s budget will be rolled out over the next two years, meaning that parents and carers will have to wait months before they see their childcare burden begin to lift.
First, the terms and conditions attached to the announcement will significantly reduce its impact. Children aged two and over will be entitled to 15 free hours of childcare a week as of April 2024 – however the hours must fall within school term time, reducing the real-terms provision to more like 11 hours.
Second, funding for ‘free’ places is insufficient, and this new policy will make it even more so. Nurseries receive around £4.80 of funding per hour for the three and four-year-olds eligible for free hours, but the care costs more like £7.50 to provide, so they use private fees they receive for younger children currently ineligible for free hours to balance the books; 86% of early years providers say the government funding they receive for three and four-year-olds doesn’t cover the cost of delivery. Jeremy Hunt’s announcement will make this problem even worse, reducing the private income nurseries receive from younger children.
Eventually, the government’s plan is to roll out the 30 free hours to all children from nine months of age onwards, but many parents are dismayed that the policy can’t take effect sooner: my 18-month-old will never benefit from the government’s offer as set out in this budget, for example.
So why delay the roll-out? Demand for childcare is huge, while between 2021 and 2022, 4,000 childcare providers in England were forced to close. In 2022, only 57% of local authorities in England had enough places available for children younger than two.
To free up more places, the new plans allow nurseries to reduce the number of staff required to care for children over two years of age from one staff member for every four children to one for every five. This is a move that has been expected for some time, and one that the Early Years Alliance (EYA), which supports early years care providers in England, has consistently warned against, citing concerns around safety and quality of care. Soon after the budget announcement, the EYA urged caution about the safety and feasibility of the government’s plans, saying that “parents want affordable care and education, but they also want to ensure that their children are in safe environments receiving quality care and education – something this policy completely flies in the face of.”
The sector will need to recruit heavily to meet the coming demand: early years work is highly skilled and undervalued, and training takes time. In fact, the government’s framing of this policy treats childcare as something necessary to “get parents back to work” – as if nursery places were simply spaces in a multi-storey car park.
This ignores the reality of early years care, which forms the basis of a child’s entire education. Children are people, not economic inconveniences. They deserve care that will set them up to be happy, secure and well-rounded individuals, and only skilled practitioners can provide that.
The reality then is that Hunt’s childcare offer feels less like a policy announcement, and more like an admission of failure. The sector has been underfunded for so long that not only will a multi-billion cash injection not fix it, it could push it over the edge.
When humans are starved for long periods of time, their bodies burn through their existing resources to survive. This puts a huge strain on the endocrine system, and when food eventually becomes available again, the metabolic shock is so profound it can be fatal. This is known as re-feeding syndrome. It’s a bit like the physiological version of what would happen to the childcare sector if the extension of the childcare offer was implemented immediately.
The government is attempting to slowly refeed the childcare system, and in doing so, tacitly admitting that it has been starving it of funding for a decade. Without the staff and resources to operate safely, children will be at risk, staff will burn out, parents will continue to struggle at work. I can testify to how difficult it is to retain a job when childcare provision is eye-wateringly expensive and chronically unreliable.
The lead time until the places are available is just one of the signs that the policy is likely to be too little, too late. Even with this period to prepare, this policy expansion is a paltry real-terms offer for parents, workers and children. Safely rebuilding the sector after it has been allowed to wither for so long is going to be a slow and grinding process.
Edie Miller is a writer and editor based in north-east England specialising in the politics of labour, technology and the climate crisis.