Children’s Education Recovery and Childcare Costs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:35 pm on 7th June 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Stephen Morgan Stephen Morgan Shadow Minister (Defence) (Armed Forces and Defence Procurement), Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 6:35 pm, 7th June 2022

As children return from half-term to continue with exams and the cost of living crisis spirals, this debate speaks to the heart of concerns across this House and up and down the country.

I echo the tributes paid to the dedicated and committed staff in the education sector by Members in all parts of the House. We have heard in interventions and speeches specific mentions of individual staff, schools and other settings. Justin Tomlinson paid particular tribute to nursery staff. My hon. Friend Matt Rodda recognised the efforts of teaching staff in schools and colleges. From school leaders to teaching assistants, catering staff to each and every teacher, I place on record our thanks to them all. They have stepped up for our children time and again, during the pandemic and since. Millions of those children will now be sitting exams and assessments for the first time since 2019. It is a credit to our young people that they are rising to this challenge after the unprecedented challenges they have faced: we are so proud of them all. But this Government have consistently let them down. Ministers’ miserable failure to help children to recover lost learning threatens to limit their opportunities.

We have heard that, again, in interventions and speeches today. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading East spoke of investment in after-school clubs—something that Labour’s recovery plan would invest in—and partnerships such as the London Challenge under the previous Labour Government, which drove up outcomes for young people. My hon. Friend Emma Hardy made powerful points on oracy. I thank her for her work on the all-party parliamentary group on oracy in encouraging speaking skills at the heart of an education catch-up in schools. She also talked about the value of breakfast and after-school clubs.

As parents increasingly feel the pinch, this Government’s inaction is pricing families out of care for their children. Munira Wilson and other Members rightly praised the valuable work of Pregnant Then Screwed in lobbying for women and mothers. My hon. Friend Stella Creasy spoke of the raw deal on childcare that parents are getting from this Government and the importance of speaking up for parents. I thank her for so passionately doing so.

My hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made powerful speeches about how the costs of childcare in the UK compare with European countries, and the cost that that has for our country’s economic output. That is why Labour’s motion calls on Ministers to match our ambitious plan to help children to recover lost learning and keep childcare costs down. Despite the challenges that they face, parents are working to provide the very best for their children. Time and again this Conservative Government have made that task harder. While Ministers dither, Labour has proposed practical solutions to help children and families to thrive. It is time that this Government matched that ambition.

After the unprecedented disruption of the past two years, children must be at the centre of our plans for the future. We need a real education recovery from the pandemic that supports both children and teachers—not a gimmicky quick fix, but a recovery that is targeted, impactful and sustained, that is embedded in the fabric of day-to-day school and that is properly resourced, but there has been a complete absence of both leadership and ambition from this Government. Sir Kevan Collins’s plan was rejected out of hand by a Chancellor who told us that he had maxxed out on support for our children. It is now just over a year to the day since Sir Kevan resigned. At the time, he said that the Government’s plans were “too narrow” and “too small”, and would be delivered “too slowly.” His warnings have proved to be spot on.

The Government’s flagship national tutoring programme has failed children and it has failed taxpayers. The latest figures suggest that the Prime Minister’s blusterous target of 1 million hours of tutoring will not be met until all children currently at secondary school have left. Worse still, Ministers plan to pull out the rug from under schools that are working hard to deliver the scheme. Tapering funding will mean that schools will cover 90% of the cost within three years. With eye-watering energy bills and food and other day-to-day costs rising, there is a real possibility that schools will struggle to deliver the scheme. It is children in the classroom who will suffer.

As schools face the pinch, so too do families. Childcare is critical for learning and development, but it is also intrinsically linked to our wider economic prosperity. Pre-pandemic, children on free school meals arrived at school almost five months behind their peers. Spiralling costs will make that worse. The average cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two has risen by almost £1,500 over five years. In fact, the United Kingdom has one of the highest childcare costs as a proportion of average income, as we heard earlier. At 29%, we are 19% higher than the OECD average. That has perpetuated a gross inequality that is holding women back. Some 1.7 million are prevented from taking on more hours of paid work because of childcare costs and we lose £28.2 billion in economic output every year as a result. That contributes to the farcical situation in which young families’ income will be higher if they remain on universal credit than if they were both in work and paid for childcare. Of course, that is more punitive for single parents.

The Education Secretary likes to say that he is evidence-based and evidence-led, although there has been some debate about that recently, but what more does he need to see before acting? The latest bright idea, to cut the number of adults looking after groups of children, will likely reduce the quality of provision and have no impact on availability or affordability. After yesterday’s no confidence vote, I know that Ministers will be particularly concerned with numbers, but parents and children will tell them that this just does not add up.

In contrast, Labour’s children’s recovery plan means small-group tutoring for all who need it, breakfast clubs and activities for every child, quality mental health support for children in every school, professional development for teachers and targeted extra investment for those young people who struggled the most with lockdown. That is the action that we would take right now, and it includes investing in childcare places for young people on free school meals. Because we know that childcare pressures do not stop when children start school, we are investing in before and after-school clubs for children.

Every day, this Government are wasting time that children and families do not have. Yet there was nothing in the White Paper to combat that and nothing in the Schools Bill. This Government are happy to let children drift, with teachers and parents picking up the pieces time and time again. It is not inevitable that a generation of children should be held back by disruption to learning and spiralling costs. It is political choice made by this Government. Just as the previous Labour Government transformed education, we would do so again, working together with staff, parents and children. Labour would deliver a sustainable recovery for children’s education for more than a year, and we would insulate children and families from the Government’s cost of living crisis.

The choice for Ministers and the question for Back Benchers is once again clear. Will they finally admit that they have got it wrong and back our plans, or will they leave children as an afterthought once again? If they do not stand up for children and families, Labour will.