“When I knock on doors, one of the most common things that families raise with me is the cost of childcare. And that’s why we’re making this massive investment.”
But the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that the poorest third of families “will see almost no direct benefit from the new entitlements”.
Charities Coram and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have also said that the childcare reforms will disproportionately benefit higher income families. This is because the expansion of free childcare is targeted at working families.
By September 2025, working families will be entitled to 30 hours of childcare support each week until their children reach school. But children whose parents earn less than £8,670 each are not eligible for the scheme and will miss out on key opportunities for early development.
“What we have is a very generous childcare offer,” Johnston said. “An individual parent will be able to earn up to £100,000 and be able to claim this even if two are under that threshold. So whilst it’s not directed at certain types of incomes, it will help the vast majority of families.”
All children aged three to four are entitled to 15 hours of free childcare, but this means many of the poorest children are entitled to just half the early years education that their peers receive for free. There are already large attainment gaps when children reach school and experts fear this could widen.
“It’s shameful that around a million children in the UK last year experienced destitution, the most severe form of hardship,” said Abby Jitendra, principal policy adviser at JRF. “This should be a wake up call to politicians, who should act to make sure our social security system is strengthened. This should start with making sure universal credit payments cover at least essentials like food and household bills.
“The government should also address the unfairness of current childcare support, where more well-off parents get free childcare while poorer families don’t.”
Johnston spent more than a decade running the Social Mobility Foundation, which supports young people facing barriers to work. He claims that he wants to make sure that “whenever we do anything, we’re thinking about the impact on disadvantaged children”.
“We’ve made changes to our universal credit offer so that people can claim more and claim early for the child startup costs,” he said. Parents on universal credit can now claim 85% of their childcare costs upfront, but again they have to be working.
The Big Issue previously spoke to a single mother on universal credit who is finding it “impossible” to find flexible work to fit around her childcare responsibilities.
The government has announced that lead carers claiming universal credit will have to increase the hours they are available for work from 16 hours to a maximum of 30 hours per week once a child turns three.
Asked what plans there are to help parents struggling to find work, the minister said: “A part of this is enabling parents to be able to perhaps take on more hours, to be able to choose from a wider range of jobs, to be able to return to work if they’re not currently working.”
Johnston would like to see more people take up work in the early years sector, which is currently facing a recruitment and retention crisis. Around 57% of nursery and pre-school staff and 38% of childminders are considering quitting the early years sector, new research from the Early Education and Childcare Coalition has revealed.
Campaigners warn that staff are “overworked” and “underpaid”, but the government is still planning to increase ratios to meet demand for free childcare. Earlier this year the government completed a consultation into ratios which concluded that most people disapproved of the proposals.
“No one is going to force people to have the revised ratio if they don’t want to, but what we wanted to do was give people the flexibility where they thought it would work for them,” Johnston said, adding that it would bring ratios in England in line with Scotland.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “Ministers claim that because ratios changes are optional, the impact of the policy will be minimal – but this simply isn’t true. With early years settings under increasing financial pressure, many may feel they have no choice but to move to the new ratios, despite fearing that this will compromise the quality of care and education they provide.
“Government may claim that relaxing ratios is about flexibility but we know it’s all about providing cheaper childcare – something our own research has shown that this policy won’t even achieve.
“The fact is that this change risks compromising safety and putting even more pressure on providers at a time when many are already grappling with a myriad of challenges. Rather than trying to fix the early years crisis through constant deregulation, government needs to accept that adequate investment is the only way to deliver the affordable quality care and education that families need and deserve.”
According to the New Economics Foundation (NEF), high-quality, universal early years education is likely the highest-returning investment a government can make. And low-income children stand to benefit the most from publicly-funded early years education.
The Big Issue had just 15 minutes with the minister before he had to rush to another meeting but, permitted one more question, we asked the minister why children from the poorest families were effectively being locked out from the full offer of support.
“I don’t accept that,” he replied. “We have a number of different schemes in place, from this new childcare offer to our universal credit schemes or tax-free childcare scheme to our disadvantage offer.”
People can find the support they are eligible for on the government’s childcare choices website. Most of these schemes are for working families, with the only scheme targeted at disadvantaged children for two-year-olds. The IFS has found that just a quarter of disadvantaged two-year-olds are eligible for this, down from 40% in 2015.
Johnston refuses to accept that the government is not doing enough to help disadvantaged children. But as one million children face destitution, and many more risk being plunged into poverty this winter with less support than last year, the minister’s recital of government plans may not bring much hope to struggling families.
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