Nicola Sturgeon’s free childcare plans are a lesson to other UK leaders on how to tackle inequality

By giving the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children access to free, high-quality childcare, Sturgeon is tackling inequality and poverty right from its roots

CEO of tiney and TeachFirst founder Brett Wigdortz

“We know that children and young people have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and we are more determined than ever to help them flourish and reach their full potential.”

So said Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon earlier this month as she announced plans for free wraparound and school holiday childcare for the country’s lowest income families.

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The initiative is part of her September Programme for Government, and a pillar of her ambitious strategy to reverse the negative impact of the pandemic on young people and social mobility.

‘Tackling inequality from its roots’

It’s hard to overstate the impact that this will have for thousands of families across Scotland.

By giving the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children access to free, high-quality childcare, Sturgeon is tackling inequality and poverty right from its roots.

I’ve spent decades working alongside successive governments to help improve the life chances of British children. And if that’s taught me anything, it’s that replicating Sturgeon’s childcare pledge south of the border would be one of the most impactful solutions to social inequality ever introduced in England.

We know that when children are placed in quality preschool education and care settings, their life chances multiply exponentially.

From future educational attainment to earning potential, these benefits are experienced most dramatically by the most disadvantaged children.

‘We must prioritise comprehensive support for families’

And there’s not a moment to waste; the earlier that we support families to access wraparound and preschool care, the better the outcomes are for independence, concentration and sociability.

Of course, allocating funding to childcare provision has proven economic benefits too.

By rebalancing the cost equation, it makes it possible for parents (particularly mothers) to enter stable, secure employment or training. At the same time, it provides guaranteed income for thousands of the UK’s childcare providers and practitioners.

At this pivotal moment in the national pandemic recovery programme, we must prioritise comprehensive financial support for families to access preschool and wraparound care for their children.

We must start by helping those on the lowest incomes, then cascade upwards to offer the same opportunities to squeezed middle income families.

What’s more, the launch of comprehensive support and investment packages for the childcare providers who serve families and communities are desperately needed.

‘Care deserts’

According to Ofsted data, there was an overall loss of 442 nurseries between April 2020 and the end of March 2021, while more than 2,185 childminders left the sector.

This means that, regardless of costs, families up and down the country are being left stranded in ‘care deserts’. We must act now to reverse this trend, starting with schemes to encourage and train new professionals to work in the early years education sector.

Scotland is showing us exactly how we can give the next generation a fairer and more successful start in life. Now England must follow suit.

With the right investment and accurate recognition of the importance of preschool education, we can finally begin to alleviate the burden on working parents and level the playing field for British children.