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Last week’s Spring Budget saw the latest of many attempts by successive governments to fix England’s broken early childhood system. More funding was directed at childcare. But expensive childcare is just one symptom of a flawed system, itself the product of decades of government neglect followed by a failure to think critically and holistically once early years gained policy attention from 1997.

The result today is a hodgepodge of fragmented services, coupled with weak and poorly co-ordinated leave provision.

There are at least seven different types of early childhood service in England, each with a different offer. Some are school-based, others are ‘childcare’ provision, the latter dominated by nurseries and for-profit businesses. Fragmentation is heightened by a deliberate policy of marketisation, encouraging providers to compete. The early years workforce is split between a small minority of graduate teachers and a large majority of childcare workers.

Access is haphazard: all 3- and 4-year-old children are entitled to 15 hours a week of early childhood education, whilst 30 hours of free ‘childcare’ is on offer for the same age group, soon to be extended down the age range, though only if their parents are employed (and in all cases, the offer is for just 38 weeks a year). Financial support for parents is “complex”, with at least eight different programmes to help families with childcare costs.

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