Children don’t start school equal – that’s why we need free universal childcare

Small child playing with blocks

Siân Gwenllian, Plaid Cymru Senedd Member for Arfon

Children do not start school equal. I begin with this statement to make it clear that my focus in this article won’t be about schools, but about the biggest negative factor in children’s lives by the time they reach school age.

I’m talking about poverty, its impacts on children’s cognitive abilities and what can be done to bring about more equality.

According to Welsh Government’s Child Poverty Progress report, published in December 2019, 29% of children in Wales are living in relative income poverty. That’s nearly one in three children. What we also know from the Nuffield Trust, the UK’s independent health think tank, is that poverty has implications for children’s cognitive ability:

“Already by the age of three, children from poorer backgrounds could on average be as much as a year behind their more advantaged peers. The attainment gap widens by the time children enter school: at the beginning of their first year, children from the lowest-income families are already on average 16 months behind those from high-income families.”

Interestingly, what we also learn from the Nuffield Trust is that there is evidence that “when early years education and childcare is of high quality, it is associated with a positive impact on children’s social and cognitive development in both the short and long term.”

In fact, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) goes as far as saying that early childhood education and care is “the greatest of equalizers.”

With the knowledge that poverty is a factor in creating this attainment gap, and that access to good quality early childhood education and care levels the playing field, then we need to make sure that poverty doesn’t act as a barrier to accessing the provision that could make such a huge difference.

 

Universal

One of the ways to do that, is to remove limits on who can access early childhood provision. When we look at what is already available for children in Wales, Welsh Government’s Childcare Offer provides 30 hours of funded early education and childcare per week for working parents who are employed for at least 16 hours a week, earning at least the National Minimum Wage.

This means that government support for childcare is targeted towards families earning up to £199,000, while many of those living in poverty receive no access to early education and childcare at all. It’s a system where parents employment status is a factor in whether a child has access to this childcare, rather than a policy that puts the child’s needs at the centre.

To be a truly child-focused policy, a child’s right to access early education and care shouldn’t be determined by whether or not their parents work. A Plaid Cymru Government will put tackling poverty and children’s rights, through universal access to early education and care, at the heart of our programme for government. We will implement a long term plan to deliver free universal childcare for children aged 12 months until they are eligible for full-time education.

There are many benefits to universal early childhood care. Childcare stays local, therefore investment in this childcare stays local – using local suppliers to make this possible. There are clear benefits for parents too, who would then be free to pursue work if they wish. With known gender economic inequality often stemming from the fact that women tend to be the home childcare providers, free universal childcare would remove the barrier for women who want to work.

The Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Chwarae Teg, Women’s Equality Network, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation all support the removal of cost and other eligibility criteria when it comes to widening access to childcare during the early years.

Re-imagine

I do think that the pandemic has taught us important lessons around childcare and work. We know that children need to socialise and see other children and adults. Parents have been juggling work and childcare, and possibly had to cut down their hours as a result. Grandparents have had to shield from grandchildren. Existing childcare centres have bravely stepped up to provide emergency care for the children of keyworkers.

We have the opportunity now to re-imagine what this should look like in the future. Plaid Cymru’s position is clear – we believe that free universal childcare for children aged 12 months until they are eligible for full-time education is the way to achieve this.

A child-centred policy that tackles the attainment gap is surely the way forward for Wales?

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