Politicians should focus on the quality of childcare provision, rather than vying over how many free places can be provided, say early years experts.
An open letter from leading academics and advisors states that the three main parties should put more emphasis on improving the skills of people working with young children. Currently, two in five private nurseries have no graduate-level staff.
Professor Tony Bertram, president of Early Education, said: “This election has seen promises to increase the number of hours of childcare for working families, and much less discussion about the quality of early education, especially for the most disadvantaged children.”
Labour and the Tories have clashed over whether teachers in schools should be qualified, but when it comes to childcare they have primarily focused on offers of free places.
In their manifesto, the Conservatives have pledged to bring in 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds for working parents. Similarly, Labour says it will expand free childcare to 25 hours.
But smaller parties have made wider-ranging commitments. The Liberal Democrats have promised in their manifesto to ensure that by 2020 every formal early years setting employs at least one person who holds an early years teacher qualification, and the Green Party has said it wants to make sure those leading early years education have qualified teacher status.
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said: “Politicians of all parties clearly think offering more hours of free childcare will appeal to parents, but they need to look rigorously at the evidence of whether that is good use of scarce public funds. One clear lesson from every previous expansion of early years provision is that quality does not keep up with quality when the sector is pressured to grow too fast.
“We feel the priorities have tipped too far in the wrong direction and there is too much emphasis on quantity over quality. We recognise that some parties are looking at this issue, but as politicians work on the detail of their proposals, we want to make sure they don’t leave quality behind in the rush for greater numbers.”
In the letter, the president and 18 vice-presidents of Early Education write: “Families with young children have been hit harder than any other household type under the coalition’s austerity measures…It behoves a rich society to ensure that settings are of high quality so that families can be confident their children are well cared for and have many opportunities for play and learning.”