Labour childcare pledge a 'good start' industry leaders say, but more needs doing

Labour’s pledge to build thousands of new nursery schools to accommodate 100,000 childcare spaces has been broadly welcomed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, but it echoed calls by industry leaders who said more will need to be done to transform the sector.

The move is set to be one of Labour’s flagship policies when its manifesto is launched on Thursday.

It is understood the party also plans to initially continue with the Conservative policy of offering subsidised childcare hours, despite having previously criticised it.

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Under the current scheme which is due to be expanded in September, the hours apply only during term time, and many parents have been unable to take up the offer because of a lack of availability.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson during a visit to Nursery Hill Primary School, in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, as the Party unveils its plans for childcare, while on the General Election campaign trail.Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson during a visit to Nursery Hill Primary School, in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, as the Party unveils its plans for childcare, while on the General Election campaign trail.
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson during a visit to Nursery Hill Primary School, in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, as the Party unveils its plans for childcare, while on the General Election campaign trail.

Further, despite being described as ‘free childcare hours’, the subsidy currently offered to childcare providers does not meet the actual costs, meaning parents still have to pay, albeit at a subsidised rate.

Promoting the new policy yesterday, Labour pledged to spend around £135 million to fund the conversion of primary school classrooms into nursery rooms.

With England set to have around 400,000 fewer primary-school pupils by 2029, Labour’s proposals would make use of some freed up space, the IFS said.

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It found the 100,000 new nursery places would constitute a 6 per cent increase from current levels.

This would mean that around 27 per cent of childcare places are located in schools (up from 22 per cent last year).

Sector leaders were also keen to stress it should be seen as a ‘first step’, rather than an ultimate goal.

Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Many primary schools already run nurseries very successfully, and these plans have the potential to build on this.

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“But to realise this potential it is important that nursery places are sufficiently funded for all children and that this includes improving access to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Gaps in educational attainment start very early in life and if we are ever to get a grip of this issue and improve outcomes for all young people this must be the starting point for more action.”

Christine Farquharson, an associate director at the IFS, said: “By far the biggest choice Labour has made on childcare was the decision to sign up to the hugely ambitious expansion of funded childcare entitlements that the current government has introduced.

"By contrast, the plans announced to pay for the conversion of 3,300 primary school classrooms (going spare because of falling pupil numbers) may nudge the market in a different direction – but certainly won’t transform it.

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"Targeting provision at childcare ‘deserts’ could help to expand access to childcare in under-served areas – but a sensible plan would take into account the likely local demand for childcare, not just the (lack of) supply.”

However there was apparent confusion over another of Labour’s key education pledges – to introduce VAT to private school fees.

Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry (pictured inset) was asked about students who are expected to leave private schools because of the 20 per cent rise in prices, and said state schools with vacancies would welcome it. as a result of the introduction of VAT.

But her leader Sir Keir later pointed to analysis which said there would be a neglible impact on class sizes.

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Asked if Ms Thornberry’s suggestion was wrong, the Labour leader said: “Yes.”

“We’ve had the [separate] analysis by the IFS on this, which says that there’ll be a negligible impact. So we’re very confident about that.”

The IFS think tank has said the policy will generate roughly £1.5 billion a year, which Labour plans to invest in state education, including on recruiting more teachers.

“Bridget has got it right and Emily didn’t get it quite right,” Sir Keir also told LBC Radio. “Bridget is obviously the shadow secretary of state on education, and Emily just got the lines a bit wrong there.”

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