‘Make childcare free from age one’
Latest candidate to join Welsh Labour leadership race says party needs ‘new vision’
FREE child care should be available from the age of one, according to the latest entrant to the Welsh Labour leadership contest.
Ogmore AM Huw Irranca-Davies, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Children, Older People and Social Care, said his party needed to renew itself with a bold vision for the future.
He said Wales should aim to have the best package of child care, preschool education and infant health care in the world.
But he acknowledged it would take time to deliver all the elements, and it was likely to be a project for two Assembly terms.
Mr Irranca-Davies’ idea would see the Flying Start programme for two to three-year-olds, currently only available in the deprived communities, rolled out to all children.
There are four key elements to Flying Start:
Quality, part-time child care for two to three-year-olds amounting to two-and-a-half hours a day, five days a week for 39 weeks. In addition, there should be at least 15 sessions of provision for the family during the school holidays.
An enhanced health visiting service, with one full-time-equivalent health visitor per 110 children aged under four in the target areas. The primary function of the Flying Start health visitor is to support the family in the home, assessing both the child
and the family in terms of high, medium and low risk). Flying Start health visitors should continually assess those families identified as medium and high risk, and make appropriate referrals. Typically, children in Flying Start communities receive seven visits from health visitors, and the aim would be to provide that number of visits for all children.
■ Access to parenting programmes, with every family offered formal parenting support at least on an annual basis. This can be in groups or one to one in the home with a mix of formal and informal support depending on need.
■ Speech, language and communication, with every family having ongoing access to an appropriate language and play group. Evidence shows that speech, language and communication ability is an important predictor of later progress in literacy and has an impact on social skills as well as behaviour of children.
Making such a programme available to every child would give all the best chance of developing and reduce the number of problem children who would later be at risk of getting involved in crime.
Increasing the availability of free child care firstly to two-year-olds and then one-year-olds would make it easier for their parents to return to the labour market, Mr IrrancaDavies believes.
There would, however, be no obligation to take part in the scheme.
Such an offer would rival provision in the Nordic countries, where taxation is notably higher than in the UK and other western European countries.
Under Welsh Labour’s rules, candidates for the leadership must be AMs and need five nominations from their colleagues before they can get on to the ballot paper.
So far Finance Secretary Mark Drakeford is the only candidate to have gained the necessary support to stand.
Mr Irranca-Davies hopes that a series of policy announcements he plans to make in coming weeks will secure him the five nominations he needs.
Speaking to the Western Mail after the launch of his campaign at the Flying Start Centre in Sarn, near Bridgend, Mr Irranca-Davies said: “I didn’t come into politics simply to tread water. I came into politics because I want to change things.
“If people rightly say to me this is going to cost, I’ll say yes it will. Is it a priority? I’ll say it should be.
“This has to be a collaboration. Let’s decide first of all what our vision is. Do we agree this is the right thing to do, and if we do, let’s talk about how we do it in steps to get there – how many years it will take to get there. Because even in Nordic countries they did not do this overnight.”
He said he thought Wales was “a small enough, dynamic enough, progressive enough country to grasp this opportunity and say yes, by damn we should be doing this”.
He said: “It’s an expensive programme – but it delivers the results.”
The AM said just over £70m per year was spent currently on Flying Start across Wales.
Two other existing programmes would also be rolled into the offer: the Foundation Phase of early years learning and the existing child care programme for three to fouryear-olds.
He said: “I would argue the first thing we need to do is say how do we streamline these programmes so that early education and child development should underpin every interface with a young child aged between one and four? You end up with an early childhood development and care setting. Simplify it, and you do it more cost effectively. It’s all to do with quality, education, socialisation, family support and so on.”
Explaining the value of intensive intervention in families, Mr IrrancaDavies said: “What we know is absolutely crucial to child development is speech, language and communication therapy specialists: people who go out to work in the families where there is a lack of capacity to develop this and the child is developing slower in those areas. You give them provision and you work with that family in order to develop the child’s skills, but also the family’s skills – that old adage: teach a person to fish, you don’t give them a fish. You teach the family to be the ones who develop with the child in terms of speech and communication.”
Such provision would be extended throughout Wales, said the AM, so there wouldn’t be a child who “went without”.
The Foundation Phase of very early years education, currently provided in schools, could in future be based in a co-setting with Flying Start provision in a family and child hub, where there is engagement with children and their family before they start school. It could also provide elements of child care.
Mr Irranca-Davies said: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see that? Our current child care offer [of 30 hours a week] is ground-breaking. There’s some criticism of it because people say it’s only for three and four-yearolds. It is – but it’s provision for that age group that we’ve never had before. Child care providers are telling me it’s helping them sustain their very good businesses.
“But we know that the majority of people who are taking up the child care offer in existing areas are below the median Welsh wage. That means poorer families are taking advantage of it.
“We are speaking to families into whose budget we are putting back £200 to £250 a week in state-sponsored child care. That’s a benefit. And other parents are saying they can actually now go to that place down the road – the supermarket, the bar, that’s offered them a job before and say they can now take it, because they can now get child care paid for by the Labour Welsh Government.
“The evidence tells us that for many parents you need to look at two and one-year-olds.
“If you’re a young mum who does not want to fall behind in your workplace, who does not want to fall into that classic gender pay gap because you’ve had to take two to three years out because you can’t afford child care, you might want to go back if you can be given by the state say 10 hours per week. And maybe when they’re two years old 15 hours a week. And then when they get to three to four, the full 30 hours per week. Now that becomes interesting. If you can combine that with the best elements of Flying Start and the best elements of Foundation Phase, there is the early years integration that starts to make a meaningful difference.”
> Ogmore AM Huw Irranca-Davies