As the chancellor stood up to deliver his spring budget on Wednesday, Joeli Brearley sat in the lobby of a hotel near parliament crouched over her laptop, headphones on, eyes glued to the screen.
The Pregnant Then Screwed founder had read the Guardian’s story about the promise of 30 free hours a week for all children under five the night before, but after many leaks and denials wouldn’t let herself hope. Then, after waiting for more than 50 minutes Jeremy Hunt confirmed it.
“I just burst into tears and put a big napkin over my face,” says Brearley, who founded the anti-maternity discrimination campaign group eight years ago. “To actually hear him say those words was truly a breathtaking moment.”
Under the government’s childcare proposals all preschool children in England will receive 30 government-funded hours during term time from 2025, with an “ambition” for all state primaries to provide wraparound care from 2026.
Experts have been quick to point out the plan’s flaws. The current “free” hours provision for three-to-four-year-olds is underfunded and has caused thousands of providers to shut – a promised £240m increase was far short of the £1.8bn needed. The £4.2bn for the new hours would not meet the £5.2bn cost. Demand already outstrips supply, and in a tight labour market badly paid workers are leaving the sector in droves. A deeply unpopular policy of increasing the ratio of carers to children to 1:5 from 1:4 will go ahead despite opposition. And eligibility rules only giving the hours to working parents mean the poorest children will miss out.
But the announcement was also welcomed as a huge step forward – one that a few years ago seemed as likely as a male politician being asked how he juggled work and home life. How did it happen?
The pandemic changed everything, says Brearley. “It suddenly became really apparent how important childcare was,” she says. Then the cost of living crisis hit and childcare costs, which had been rising for years, spiralled. The impact? The number of women leaving the workforce increased for the first time in decades, with many saying they worked fewer hours than they wanted.
Parents’ frustration, which had been growing for years, burst its banks. In October more than 15,000 parents, mainly women, protested in 11 towns and cities. They filled in surveys, vented on social media and wrote to MPs. “You can write the policy papers, look at the data and give all the economic arguments in the world,” says Brearley. “But until people demand change, it’s never going to happen.”
At the same time, behind the scenes a wide coalition was forming. In July last year the Women’s Budget Group pulled together 30 organisations representing parents, children, unions, providers, politicians and businesses with the mantra: “No egos, everyone just working together for a better future for early years.”
Ahead of party conferences last year they lobbied hard. Stella Creasy and other Labour women created MotherRED to fund parliamentary candidates who promised to fight for childcare reform. Then Labour’s shadow education secretary promised childcare would be her “number one priority”.
“It established childcare reform as a key election battleground,” says Sarah Ronan, the coalition’s childcare lead at the Women’s Budget Group. “We knew then that the government was going to have to do something.”
Alongside Conservative MPs like Siobhan Bailey, the coalition focused on delivering the message – not new, not revolutionary – that childcare was vital for the economy, and in a tight labour market reform was urgently needed. The OBR informed ministers that reforms would have a greater impact on GDP in the future than any other fiscal policy measure since 2010, and add 110,000 new workers to the workforce.
“We’d been chipping away, and it was almost like when you’re playing Jenga, and you finally find that loose block,” says Ronan. “The labour market and the economy, that’s how we’ve been able to get this issue centre stage.”
That is frustrating for one of Parliament’s longest-standing childcare reform campaigners – who entered the Commons seven months pregnant in 1982, when only 3% of MPs were women. “Even though [childcare] was top of women’s demands for decades, that wasn’t enough,” says Harriet Harman, whose first question to Margaret Thatcher about the lack of childcare was met with hoots of derision. “Men get what they want. Women only get stuff if they can argue it works for the economy.”
The news, also tucked into the budget, that the childcare element of universal credit will now be paid upfront, was bitter-sweet for Nichola Salvato, who no longer needs it. In January 2021, she challenged the policy and won, and was part of a campaign by a group, Mums on a Mission, backed by Save the Children. But the DWP fought the decision and successfully appealed, before making a U-turn the year before a general election.
“It’s so frustrating. It was such a waste of public money to defend our case for so long,” she says. “It is fantastic news and will make a huge difference to so many families – it’s just such a shame it’s taken them so long.”
Deep disquiet remains in the early years sector, where the decision on ratios has infuriated providers, and left many feeling shut out of discussions. The Early Years Alliance (EYA) spent two years fighting for the release of information that showed the government had been knowingly underfunding the current free hours policy at the expense of providers, a fact tacitly acknowledged by Hunt as he promised an funding increase.
But the EYA’s chief executive, Neil Leitch, argues the £240m extra doesn’t plug a £1.8bn hole. “This is not a strategic vision that gives us security for the long term. It’s a soundbite,” he says. “And until there is some substance behind it, I have every right to hold some reservations.”
On Friday, after a week of high drama, long hours and little sleep Brearley was preparing to give evidence about childcare to parliament next week. Her euphoria had worn off but her optimism remained.
“I know that what has been proposed is very imperfect, it won’t work in its current format and we now need to push for more funding so we can get this right for every parent, child and provider,” she says. “But we have to recognise that this is a momentous moment. What’s promised is the bare minimum. We can’t go back from that, we can only go forward.”
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