A vision of early education and care

by Megan Pacey

July 22, 2023

One of four in the series Propositions for a Labour Government 2023/24


Megan Pacey

The debate around early education and care, its cost and who it is primarily for, is peppered with unanswered questions. Is it to benefit children’s early learning and development? Is it to enable parents to work? Who should pay for it? And who is best to deliver it?

There are no easy answers. The current hotchpotch of government-funded support is doing little to narrow the disadvantage gap. Many organisations providing early education and care are increasingly unsustainable and parents are continuing to face eye-wateringly high costs for early education and care. The workforce is dominated by poorly paid, poorly trained, and poorly qualified women.

What is clear is that the structures in which we deliver early education and care, and how as a society we pay for it, are broken beyond repair. There is nothing to gain by further tinkering at the edges. Last year’s Spring Budget saw the latest of many attempts by successive governments to ‘fix’ a broken system. It accepted that large scale reform is needed, but a truly transformational plan would not patch up a broken system on the cheap.

Governments over the last 25 years have espoused a vision of quality, affordable early education and care that supports all children’s early education and development, which meets needs of families as well as those of the local and national economy. If this is ever to become a reality, revolutionary change is required.

We must ask questions.

Does the current total spend deliver value for money?

The current hotchpotch isn’t a bargain. As a proportion of GDP, the current UK spend isn’t insignificant. Other nations spend comparable amounts but would appear to get much more for their investment. There is a universal call to invest more, and while investing more is right, it is worth questioning how the current investment is being spent. Is it being spent efficiently? Are the resources achieving the desired impact for all children, their families, and the economy? Could we achieve more with the resources that are available if the investment was spent differently?

Are all the needs of all children and families being met?

The dominant structure and ‘mantra’ of childcare for working parents means that provision is there to provide childcare for working parents. Solutions to the challenges might never be found if early education and care continue to be viewed through a prism where access is only for those who can afford to pay or who are entitled to government subsidies in order to work, and not as a public good. There needs to be  benefit not only for all children and their families but also for  local communities and indeed for the whole of society.

The workforce

The current structure relies on a workforce of low-qualified, women workers, paid not much more than the minimum wage with almost half claiming in-work benefits. As staff face in-work poverty and a lack professional development and progression, providers struggle to recruit and retain staff and the sustainability of the structure hangs precariously in the balance.

Our reliance on for-profit nurseries and other providers; are there alternatives?

The structure relies largely on for-profit business or social enterprises, competing for a share of the UK childcare market. Unlike schools, they’re not already in every community or statutorily required to be there. The market is increasingly dominated by large chains, owned by venture capitalist firms, serving affluent areas, where it makes business sense. A large proportion of the government investment in early childhood education is in the form of supply side subsidies, many of which are only available to working parents. When there aren’t enough working parents with a subsidy to spend or they choose to spend it elsewhere, the provision becomes unsustainable. The inevitable result is inequality of access.

The beginnings of what is needed

Successive governments have shown an unwavering commitment to the marketisation and privatisation of early childhood education and care provision, despite research, here and abroad, suggesting that both are problematic. The evidence shows that it isn’t working well for most parents and their children, nor for the low-qualified and poorly paid workforce. Reform must be bold, wholesale and sustained, going long beyond the tenures of those currently leading the political debates.

Much of this mess lies in funding. But it doesn’t have to be this way. As it stands, the amount of public money earmarked for early education and care, for the most part, subsidises the activities of for-profit childcare companies. That resulted in a situation where money is going into the pockets of shareholders and directors whose priority is profit, not provision.

Freedom of Information requests show that the government has known for years that it is underfunding provision. This has left the smaller, private, not for profit and maintained providers of early education and care without the support that they need and highly vulnerable. The same is true in the case childminder providers, many of them operating where it doesn’t make business sense for larger chains. The shortfall has pushed up fees, suppressed workers’ wages and forced thousands of providers out of business. Closures are most acute in the most deprived parts of the country, which raises significant questions of equity.

So, what do we need to do?

We need to move away from a strategy of private marketisation and treat the sector as infrastructure, just as we do schools. We need to guarantee families access to early education and care from the end of parental leave. Parents, particularly those of the youngest and most disadvantaged children, need to have confidence that settings will look after their children’s safety and welfare and provide a quality educational experience, regardless of the work status of their parents or their wider family circumstances. To that end, we can’t continue to rely on a workforce that is dominated by poorly paid, trained, and qualified women. We also need to increase wages and training for those working in early education and care.

There is always much wincing and protesting when universal integrated provision, that is government funded, with professionally paid staff, is mooted as a solution. But what would a transition from a system that is largely dependent on for-profit provision to one that uses an extended school model, with an early education focus in partnership with local agencies involve?

Public funding would need to be gradually converted, over a transition period from the current mix of direct and indirect funding of all services, to direct funding of all services within the desired system. There would also need to be a building up of the desired services to fill the gap by withdrawing support to the current largely for-profit provision. The establishment of 3500 Children’s Centres in less than 7 years under the last Labour government demonstrates what might be possible. While some existing provision would close, their sustainability is questionable in the current environment. It’s possible that some might continue to operate as a private service in the same way that private schools do, entirely paid for by the user, while many others are likely to convert to being part of the new arrangements. And the workforce? Far from being abandoned, those who wish to continue should be welcomed into a new system of universal early education and care where they will be supported to upgrade and develop their qualifications and rewarded with professional levels of pay.

These plans are ambitious. A government that commits itself to the first phase of education, and embraces the evidence base that shows participation in high-quality early years provision would lay the best foundation for all children. It would also boost maternal employment, begin to close the gender pay gap, ensure families are supported from welfare into study or work and increase family earnings so beginning to tackle the deeply entrenched inequalities of our society.


Megan Pacey’s article is one of four papers together published by the New Visions for Education Group as “Propositions For The Next Labour Government”


Early years photo by Stephen Andrews on Unsplash