It is a cliché that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s true, then the Tory front bench appears to have a whacking great crush on Bridget Phillipson.
The shadow education secretary has for months, maybe years, been trailing plans that a Labour government would put childcare – pre-school, after-school and breakfast clubs – square and centre of a major reform agenda after an election.
Most recently, Phillipson made a major speech last week, in which she set out the many ways that the failing nursery and childminder system is letting down children, letting down families and adding to this country’s productivity malaise. She explained in simple terms why reform is so pressing.
And then a few short days later, the chancellor Jeremy Hunt made investment and reform of childcare the headline announcement of his Budget. He also committed the government to piloting and then rolling out “extended school” for all primary pupils. This will mean that all parents of five to 11-year-olds will have a right to access breakfast clubs and after-school clubs.
So, what do Labour do now that the Tories have stolen their thunder with a welcome package of reforms (albeit amidst pressing concerns about how long it will take to roll them out, and how practical they will be to implement)?
There is an argument to be made that the vision for childcare that Hunt set out was a pale imitation of that being offered by Labour, which could work in their favour. For example, the chancellor’s package of reforms would give more free access to early years education to the wealthy than the poor. Couples who earn nearly £200,000 between them will be getting 30 free hours of nursery for their kids from age one through to reception, while those children in the poorest families will only get 15. It is very unlikely that Labour’s version of the scheme would have contained such a disparity.
I expect Labour to take on this challenge head on in the run-up to the election. Phillipson will know that Hunt is missing a crucial trick: and that is that parents (who make up something like 14m potential voters) are only really interested in taking advantage of more free childcare and wrap-around care if they think it is offering something that is of value.
I have run many focus groups on this subject and, when you talk to mums and dads about after-school clubs (for example) they worry deeply that their kids aren’t getting anything out of the experience. They only really sit up and take note if you suggest that this time could be put to better use, offering music, drama, art, sport or life-skills. Labour will focus hard, I expect, on selling a much greater vision of this kind.
Likewise, I would expect them to talk extensively about a plan to drive up the quality of what is on offer with nurseries and childminders. Not just an extension of the number of free hours on offer, but a major commitment to improving the whole educational offer: for example, the professionalisition of the early years workforce through better pay and better training.
Prior to the Budget, Phillipson spoke of how her plans for childcare would be on a scale not seen “since Labour created the NHS in 1945”. Despite the Budget, this will surely remain her best line: while the Conservatives make modifications to an already-broken system, Labour will look to build something new from the ground up.