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The Guardian view on Hunt’s childcare plans: jobs aren’t all that matter | Editorial

The chancellor wants to get more parents into work – but additional free hours won’t fix this broken system

On hearing that Jeremy Hunt plans to extend the offer of 30 free childcare hours to children under three, many parents will have breathed a collective sigh of relief. The prominence of childcare in his budget is evidence of how far opinion has shifted. Though a vital part of the economy, childcare has long been treated as a domestic issue. Parents have been expected to conjure up an additional salary for the luxury of being able to go to work. Provision is patchy, complicated and ruinously expensive.

Mr Hunt’s recognition of these facts was a welcome change in tone. But his offer, which would only come into full effect after the next election, treats childcare as a means to a single end: getting parents into work. Childcare isn’t just an economic growth issue. Early years education plays a crucial role in targeting inequalities and closing attainment gaps. For this reason, quality matters as much as availability. Mr Hunt, like his predecessors, sees childcare primarily as a labour market tool. The risk is that simply expanding the number of free hours without reforming the childcare system will drive down quality. Moreover, limiting free hours to families where both parents work will cut out those who could also benefit, such as parents who are looking for jobs.

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