The government's new childcare bill, published last week, is a huge step backwards, even from the inadequate plans that existed previously.
Councils will now have the primary duty to provide care for pre-school children.
But they will not get a single extra penny to improve facilities — and they will only be obliged to meet childcare demand if there is no private provider willing to do so.
Beverley Hughes, minister for children and families, has admitted that the bill would not give parents any new legal rights to demand childcare. It would require local authorities to act only “as far as is reasonably practicable’’ within the constraints of funding.
The bill means that the government is retreating from plans to expand the Sure Start programme of well resourced centres for children and parents — a programme that is already in trouble due to lack of investment.
The Sure Start scheme is supposed to be extended from the current 524 local programmes to 3,500 by 2010 — one in every neighbourhood across England. But that target looks increasingly unlikely, especially after this latest bill.
The initial concept behind Sure Start, partially fulfilled in some areas, was for centres that involved real participation from parents and their children.
The Sure Start centre in Hackney, east London, where one of my children went to nursery, provided a range of opportunities for parents and children to meet, share activities and go on days out, as well as access to advice about health and social services.
Research found that one of the unintended consequences of Sure Start was that in a limited way it enabled young parents, usually women, to feel they had some way of saying what they wanted from local services.
There was even an outside chance they might get the funds to make their wishes a reality.
But that vision has now gone.Norman Glass, the architect of Sure Start, spoke out earlier this year about how the network was being downgraded and transformed for the worse.
“My contention is that little will remain but the brand name,” he said.
“As a result the extraordinary enthusiasm for Sure Start among parents and those who work in the programme is likely to be dissipated.”
Rather than being a child-centred project, Glass added, Sure Start had become an economic one, aimed at getting parents off benefits and back to work.
Sure Start boards had their financial autonomy removed, which diverted money away from good nurseries and playgrounds towards “childcare factories” where cost was paramount.
The Sure Start centre where my child went has since been closed and is now being “redeveloped”.
This bill is the end of the hopes for Sure Start. Private firms, charging £200 or more a week per child, will rule instead.
And just to top it off there will be a maths and English curriculum imposed on children from the age of three.
Children love to learn — but they certainly don’t need the shadow of a rigid set of lessons over them when they can hardly hold a crayon properly.
They need to develop language and social skills and the sometimes difficult abilities of sharing and respecting others.
Improved childcare was one of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair’s great boasts. Now they have both failed us.