Children’s Education Recovery and Childcare Costs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 7th June 2022.

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Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 6:44 pm, 7th June 2022

I welcome the opportunity to respond on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government and I thank the many hon. Members who have made constructive and passionate contributions to the debate. I will try to respond to as many of the themes and issues raised as possible in the time available to me; there is much to respond to and so little time in which to do it.

As the Minister for School Standards said at the beginning of the debate, we are committed to making childcare more affordable and accessible, supporting parents and providing children with the best possible start in life. Recovery remains a priority for the Government. It is a key part of building back better, levelling up and making sure that we are ready and skilled for a future in which the next generation can prosper.

Opposition days are, by their nature, political and the Opposition are right—dare I say it—to push us to go further and faster, which is their job after all. I gently say to them, however, that there is not one Member of the House who does not want every child in this country to have a world-class education where they are given every opportunity to fulfil their potential. I have two young children and I want them and every single child in our country to have better life chances than we had, regardless of their background or where they live.

We all want more accessible, flexible and affordable childcare and early years education, with every child having the best possible start in life. We all want every single school to take a whole-school approach to mental wellbeing and to ensuring that the children and young people get the mental health support that they need when they need it.

I turn to hon. Members’ contributions, starting with early years and childcare, which have been raised the most. I join my hon. Friend Mark Logan in rightly thanking all those working in education, early years and childcare. I agree that the early years are often not recognised as much as they should be, which must change. Early years are very much educators and they improve life chances, so let me say from the Dispatch Box: “Thank you.” I cannot let the moment go without saying happy birthday to his daughter Brannagh—I thought it was Princess Elsa of Arendelle up in the Gallery, but I will “Let It Go”.

On early years, the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) raised the issue of childcare costs. They are passionate campaigners and advocates for change in this area, in which we need change. They are right to point out that there were challenges pre-pandemic that were exacerbated by the pandemic, and that we have to fix our childcare sector and market. They are right to focus on under-twos where the cost is often highest and on school holiday provision, which are certainly priorities for me.

I am certainly aware of the impact on women in particular, because we know that childcare costs fall disproportionately on women, which comes with family planning decisions; disproportionate costs and salary disparities; and women deciding not to work. That is an issue for business, because we are losing a huge talent pool across our country, not to mention the impact on our economy.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow was also right to mention paternity leave. I will certainly look into the stigma issue that she raised and I will raise flexible working with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I do not recognise her figures in relation to nursery and early years funding, which I will come on to in a moment. Let us not forget that, for under-twos and for three and four-year-olds, there is tax-free childcare and up to 85% of the cost is available for those on universal credit.

The hon. Lady was right to pay tribute to the campaigning group Pregnant Then Screwed. I have met with its representatives, I have heard what they have to say and I look forward to continuing to work with them. I cannot say that I agree with them on every single issue, but they raise some good points and there is no question but that change is required in this area.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden raised academies, and I agree that academies are excellent. She also said that work is the best route out of poverty, and I totally agree. I am sure that she welcomes the reality that far fewer children—in fact, hundreds of thousands fewer—are growing up in workless households. She was also right to focus on childcare. I understand that she is working cross-party to look closely at childcare costs more generally. I look forward to that committee’s recommendations.

The cost of breakfast and after-school clubs was raised, which is an important factor. The hon. Lady also raised Sure Start, but I have to say that that was not early years education. It did not often provide childcare, and when it did, it was private sector, but I may come on to Sure Start later.