For too long politicians have paid lip-service to children in their early years. Much has been said about their importance; too little has been delivered. For new Labour, delivering is central to our determination to raise standards, to support the family and to promote equality. Our ambitious programme for parents and children in this crucial phase, launched this week, reflects the changes in society and the demands of today's world.
In the 1970s, attention was focused on nursery education. In the 1980s, the issue of child care became important to parents, employers and policymakers.
In the 1990s it is clear we must deliver on education and child care, and, by integrating the two, develop a comprehensive and coherent approach to early years' services, working in partnership with parents, employers and the statutory, voluntary and private sectors.
There is plenty of evidence that proves the effectiveness of investment in the early years. The Audit Commission found that a place in a nursery gave a child four to six months' education gain. The American High Scope programme, showed that for every $1 spent on children in an integrated programme of education and care in their early years, $7 was saved in later public spending.
We know that 60 per cent of a child's intellectual development takes place in the first five years, yet we only spend 2 per cent of our education budget on this phase, while the French spend 12 per cent and the Danes 15 per cent. Our record is abysmal: the most recent Tory initiative - the nursery voucher scheme - an unmitigated disaster. The evidence from the phase one authorities shows that private and voluntary places are being squeezed by competition, rather than creating new ones. Standards are being driven down, children are being rushed prematurely into school reception classes rather than being offered a nursery education experience appropriate to their age, and the crazy bureaucratic paper chase is diverting teachers from teaching.
Labour will get rid of the voucher scheme. Within 18 months of coming to office, we will ensure a high-quality place for all four-year-olds and set targets to expand nursery education for three-year-olds. But we want a new approach. Everyone acknowledges that a child's first, and enduring, educator is their parent. Yet the Tories believe that parenting should remain a private concern with the state only intervening at points of crisis. We believe that a proper role for government is to provide a framework and support for parents.
Economic and social changes have affected the way families live. There are more lone parents, too often locked into dependency; more women with young children have, or want, to work; informal child-care arrangements are becoming more difficult. Children's lives are changing. Our policy responds to these challenges, with a programme to bring the services together in a coherent way.
We will pioneer the development of Early Excellence Centres in 25 regions, providing on one site high-quality early learning and child-care facilities. With at least 75 places in each centre, services will be appropriate both to the age and needs of the child and to the requirements of parents. Education will be free and child care based on ability to pay.
Depending on local priorities, the centres could also offer training for local people who work with young children, support for early learning in the home, a database on local services for young children, a toy library or play bus in rural areas, a health centre, or a drop-in centre for parents, childminders and others. Many mothers want to stay at home when their children are young. But others want or need the flexibility and choice that integration offers. Early Excellence Centres are the first step in demonstrating how integration can work in practice.
At the same time we will develop practical ways to support parenting, looking at the role of health visitors, who are often the first professionals with whom parents have contact, and the potential of other community health services. We will insist that parenting skills become part of the national curriculum. We will introduce home-school contracts for the early years. Employers will be encouraged to develop employment practices that enable fathers, as well as mothers, to combine work and family more easily.
At the DFEE, we will bring responsibilities for child care and education together in an Early Years Unit. Child protection will remain the responsibility of the Department of Health. We will expect local authorities to convene an Early Years Forum, working in partnership with all the relevant interests to produce an Early Years Development Plan for education and care. services, provided by the public, private and voluntary sectors, but under a unified framework for registration and inspection. We will also review the "desirable outcomes", the current targets for under-fives.
Quality is what counts. We shall invest in training for all those who work with young children and establish a "climbing frame" of qualifications to break down professional divides and provide career development.
Our plans are both visionary and practical. Investing in young children will benefit parents, employers, communities and above all children, giving them the best start and a sound foundation for their future.
Margaret Hodge is Labour MP for Barking, London, and chair of her party's Early Years Inquiry.