Naomi Eisenstadt remembers her excitement as she started as the first director of the government’s Sure Start unit in 1999.
“I felt like Lyndon Johnson had run up and asked me to set up Head Start,” she says, referring to the US president’s key 1965 policy to fight the “war on poverty”.
“For decades many women had been arguing with the government about what to do about early years. And then Blair and Brown said: ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ That was extraordinary.”
But as England and Wales prepare for the biggest shake-up in early years in at least a decade – after a massive extension to the “free” childcare hours for working parents – her optimism for the nation’s children has gone.
“I think the government values childcare but it doesn’t value children,” she says. “There was nothing in the statement about children – it was completely about the economy. And that’s a short term view because these children will be the workforce in 15-20 years. I am very anxious about the lack of attention on what childcare is actually for.”
She points out that the number of nursery workers qualified to level 3 has plummeted from 83% of staff in 2015 to 52% in 2019. “I think we have to stop talking about more and start talking about better,” she says.
Others have pointed out that the new “free hours” – which are only available to working parents and not those in training or not in work – risk exacerbating existing inequalities between children starting school.
Research from Coram Family and Childcare (CFC) and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) released last week has found the proposed investment risks “worsening outcomes for disadvantaged children”.
The Sutton Trust said 70% of those eligible for the current 30-hour offering are in the top half of earners, compared with just 20% of families in the bottom third).
It matters, the charities argue: having steadily decreased from 2007 to 2017, the attainment gap for five-year-olds had increased back to 2015 levels by 2019. In 2022, 69% of five-year-olds in England who didn’t qualify for free school meals had a “good level of development”, compared with only 48% of those that did.
“The danger is that we’re missing an opportunity for cohorts of children who could benefit by a higher quality offer,” says Eisenstadt. “This is completely counter to the idea of levelling up.”
At its peak in 2009-10, Sure Start had 3,600 centres and a £1.8bn budget, before austerity cuts saw its budget cut by more than 60%. By June last year the number of full children’s centres had dropped to just 2,773, with many offering much reduced services. “Most of the centres don’t exist any more in terms of what the original plan was,” says Eisenstadt.
She is reflective about the programme’s impact. Its first evaluation in 2005 found that while children of less disadvantaged families benefited, those in the worst circumstances had more problems than before. A follow-up in 2008 told a different story and found that in five out of 14 outcomes, Sure Start children did better than those not using the programme. In 2021 research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found the policy had long-term benefits for children’s health, which offset about a third of its cost and continued “well beyond the end of the programme itself”.
“There was a real sense that things could change. And they did. Sadly they have changed back,” she says. “But you know, it doesn’t mean what we did wasn’t worthwhile for those families who used them at the time.”
Sure Start got some things wrong, she says: it focused too much on making parents happy rather than what really benefited children. “But what grieves me is that we were learning so much.”
While not hopeful, she does at least think that some of the learning became baked in. Andrea Leadsom’s proposals for “family hubs” are the right idea, she thinks, even if they are too few and aiming them at 0-19-year-olds is “completely nuts”.
While she points to increasing child poverty – which is lower than 20 years ago but has been rising since 2013 – and the housing crisis as proof that the situation for children and young people has deteriorated, she does think the dial has moved.
“The fact that there will be something about the under-fives in both political manifestos for the next election is a big change,” she says. “Whether they’ll be the right policies or not is another matter.”
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