Our children are our future and what happens to them early on has a major impact on their life chances. A quality childcare offer is also about giving parents choices and removing barriers to the labour market.
This is a major challenge we in Tower Hamlets face. We are the fastest growing borough in the country, and also have one of the youngest populations, with over half of our residents aged 20-39 and over 22,000 children under the age of five. We are also a borough of contrasts, containing Canary Wharf and the City fringe while one in four of our residents lives in poverty.
The government’s policy on childcare has been to introduce 30 hours of it free for three and four-year-olds of working parents. However, a lack of proper funding for these places is threatening the quality of provision and the financial viability of providers. Some add additional costs when delivering the “free” entitlement as a way of bridging the funding gap.
As with many government policies a “one size fits all” approach doesn’t necessarily work in the London context. The city’s high cost of living means people’s take home pay often gets eaten up by high rents and other living costs. It also pushes up childcare providers’ overheads. The labour market in London doesn’t fit a 9-5 pattern. Working can mean overtime, shift and weekend work, zero hours contracts and long commutes. This doesn’t tie up with the childcare offer, which traditionally has often operated in the daytime.
How the government’s policies work in practice really matters to a parent trying to balance working for at least 16 hours to in order secure working tax credit with ensuring that the childcare available to them means they are better off working. Eastenders want to better themselves and they want the best for their children, and we want to harness those desires.
National figures show that only 61 per cent of eligible two-year-olds took up a free early education place in London, compared with 72 per cent nationally. The department for education has found that less than 25 per cent of families earning under £20,000 are using their 30-hour free entitlement, compared with 58 per cent of families earning more than £45,000.
Government has passed the buck on this. They have slashed our core funding by 64 per cent since 2010, which has pushed difficult decisions onto local authorities. At times, that can mean challenging and changing services which only deliver for a small number of people or aren’t properly targeted at those who need them most. We are setting our budget for the next three years and face a further £44 million of cuts.
I am proud of our ambitious early years’ strategy. This means working with partners – nursery schools, primary schools, independent nurseries, child-minders – and supporting newer models such as parent led co-operatives and protecting our children’s centres.
Our focus is on narrowing gaps at school starting age between children from different social backgrounds – essential to breaking the cycle of disadvantage and making progress on social mobility.
Our WorkPath employment service is working with our residents to train new childcare workers and upskill existing ones. We are also working closely with Job Centre Plus and with the third sector through children’s centres.
I recently held an early years summit where we brought together parents and practitioners and discussed a sustainable childcare offer for the future, and we are planning fresh investment in our new budget proposals.
Labour’s pledge nationally for an extension of the government’s 30 hours of free childcare offer to parents of all two, three and four year olds would represent a real shift towards a proper childcare offer. However until we have a Labour government, local councils are on the frontline having to find innovative solutions to childcare.
John Biggs is the Mayor of Tower Hamlets.