Spring Statement 2023 – Thoughts from the Parent-Infant Foundation
16 March 2023
Tamora Langley, Head of Policy and Communications at the Parent-Infant Foundation shares her thoughts on the 2023 Spring Statement.
“The First 1001 Days Movement campaigns for policy changes to improve outcomes for babies and toddlers. So this week’s announcement by the Chancellor of up to 30 hours of free childcare for under-twos was big news for us. If more parents decide to leave their babies in childcare and return to work, what’s the impact on babies?
“To answer this question, we need to clarify what ‘good outcomes’ look like for babies and toddlers. Are we talking about healthy weight gain? Good progress through key development milestones like crawling, walking and talking? Does the toddler learn to share and how do they interact with adults and other children? There are a raft of outcomes to consider, but are they all equally important? Should we weight physical development and emotional development equally?
“In professional childcare settings, the Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage (publishing.service.gov.uk) sets standards for learning, development and care of children from birth to age five. Childminders and nurseries are regulated by Ofsted, and children are assessed aged two. This check should identify any areas where the child’s progress is less than expected. If there are significant concerns, or an identified special educational need or disability, parents and carers should be involved in developing a targeted plan to support the child’s future learning and development. All of this presupposes the time and experience to assess and advise properly, and that childcare providers are able to fulfil expectations and staff nurseries adequately. That is not a given.
“Pressed childcare providers struggling with staffing are short on time, and battling with the twin aims of properly assessing development while also providing care. These concerns have been heightened by the government’s announcement to change staffing ratios. As the Chancellor explained, in order to increase supply of childcare, one staff member could now be asked to oversee five two-year olds (previously the maximum number was four two-year olds). The decision to change the ratios was strongly criticised by First 1001 Days member the Early Years Alliance who said, “Early years settings don’t just deliver ‘childcare’; they provide vital early education, and yet this seems to have been completely overlooked in discussions – as demonstrated by the government’s shameful decision to relax ratios despite almost universal opposition from both parents and providers.”
“Whether the government’s plan and additional funding can fix a ‘dysfunctional’ childcare system remains to be seen. Certainly reform is needed of a system which is currently unaffordable or inaccessible to many families. Still many welcomed news of a large investment in childcare for 1 and 2 year-olds. As First 1001 Days member Coram observes, “Childcare is an excellent investment – it enables parents to work and boosts the outcomes of young children, particularly the most disadvantaged.” But the welcome came with warnings. Policy design matters. By linking the number of hours of free childcare to the number of hours parents work, the government is unlikely to reach the very poorest families with its latest offer. They might argue that, should these families increase the hours they work, they too would be able to benefit. After all, the driving reason behind the policy was to incentivise work. However, The Sutton Trust reckoned that only 20% of the poorest families would qualify, so a focus on working families may worsen existing inequalities.
“What none of this tells us, is how we improve outcomes for babies and toddlers outside of professional childcare settings, and how best to support parents, carers and grandparents raising one and two-year olds at home. Their development is equally important, and currently provision of help to families in need of support is too fragmented. The government’s Start for Life programme is crucial to addressing this. Its success hinges on a successful workforce strategy to address staffing gaps in midwifery, health visiting, psychology and other services working with families. The First 1001 days of a baby’s life is a crucial period of rapid brain growth, where babies rely on the adults who care for them to provide a safe, nurturing and stimulating environment. Whether parents choose professional childcare, or care for babies within the family, it’s the baby’s outcomes that should come first.”