After years of neglecting childcare, Britain, at last, has a long-term plan. Margaret Lochrie reports
Described by the Children and Families Minister Margaret Hodge as a "childcare revolution" and hailed by campaigning organisations as a historic landmark, New Labour's most assertive steps yet towards a family-friendly Britain were announced by the Chancellor in December.
Choice for parents, the best start for children - the Government's 10-year plan - is the first long-term strategy for moving nearer to the type of childcare which is taken for granted in many other European countries.
As a first step, the childcare element of the working tax credit is to be increased next year from pound;135 to pound;175 a week for families with one child and from pound;200 to pound;300 a week for families with two or more children.
The number of children's centres is to be increased from 2,500 to 3,500 by 2010 and the number of hours of free educare for three and four-year-olds will go up from the current 12.5 per week to 15 hours by 2010, with a long-term goal of raising this further to 20 hours. Schools will provide childcare places for all older children who need it by 2010.
And for new parents, paid maternity leave will be extended to nine months from April 2007 and to a year by the end of the next Parliament. A proportion will be transferable from the mother to the father. This plan acknowledges concerns that daycare may in some circumstances be damaging for young babies.
Childcare, long neglected, is moving to the foreground of public policy, as a means of combating child poverty, preventing developmental delay and helping parents to work.
But will these measures be sufficient to rescue the childcare cause which had been lost in a policy vacuum for more than 40 years? Will they meet the litmus test of "accessible, affordable, quality childcare", New Labour's ambitious mantra since coming to power?
Few can doubt the sincerity of the Chancellor's intention to create a lasting childcare legacy as part of a fairer and more child-centred Britain. The scale of investment makes that clear. But the legacy of decades of inaction means that by 2010, Britain will still lag some way behind the support given by other governments to help balance work and family life.
A review of 21 European and English-speaking nations found a range of publicly-funded provision for children, between 12.5 and 48 hours a week, the average being 32 hours per week. The target of providing 20 free hours in this country was floated earlier this year first by Capacity, a new public interest body for children's services, and then by the Daycare Trust. This has been received well, but for the moment remains only a longer-term goal. Meanwhile, children under three will continue to receive no entitlement to publicly-funded provision, despite evidence that the effects of deprivation on child development emerge as early as 22 months.
Against this, more generous help available through tax credits should help more parents to meet the high costs of childcare. But many providers would have preferred more spending on the supply side of nursery provision. Low occupancy and uncertain sustainability are common features of the nursery market. Over time, the larger element of free provision and the creation of a transformation fund to support investment by local authorities will hopefully help some nurseries not only to expand but to weather difficulties.
Important as childcare is, it is only one of a number of measures which are needed to secure opportunities for children and to support family life.
High-quality early education can help children otherwise at risk of educational disadvantage and childcare can enable parents who would otherwise be unemployed to make a better life for their families. We now have a better understanding of the many influences on children's lives, including the recognition that the best way for society to secure children's interests is through a continuous exchange with parents, supporting them in their responsibilities and responding to their own needs as adults for personal and educational development and for change in their lives.
This was and is the rationale for Sure Start, now to be mainstreamed through a nationwide network of children's centres, the centrepiece of the strategy. The 3,500 centres may not be sufficient to meet the needs of all children and families, but the commitment is substantial enough to create a model which, with funding, could create a better format.
Too many children are failed, by their parents or by institutions, and their experience of childhood is inextricably linked to structural disadvantage. This is the defining territory of New Labour's commitment to eradicate poverty. For all families, however, childcare, education and health services, universally available, are the test of good government and the evidence of a partnership to make Britain a more family-friendly place.
Choice for parents, the best start for children is published by the DfES. Margaret Lochrie is a director of Capacity www.capacity.uk.net