Early years gets another new minister

The Government has appointed a new minister in charge of early years  – its eighth in five years.

Nursery worker with child


The Government has appointed a new children’s minister in a mini Cabinet reshuffle, making the new appointee the  eighth minister responsible for early years in the last five years.

Claire Coutinho has been moved from her position at the Department for Education where she was overseeing early years policy to Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, replacing Grant Shapps who moves to Defence. Previous recent ministers with responsibility for early years are Nadhim Zahawi, Kemi Badenoch, Vicky Ford, Will Quince, Kelly Tolhurst, Brendan Clarke-Smith and Coutinho.

The new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Families and Wellbeing will be David Johnston. He served on the Education Select Committee between 2020 and 2021 and, in September 2021, was appointed as Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department for Education. Johnston, former chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation and Chair of the Social Mobility All-Party Parliamentary Group, resigned that post in July 2022 in protest at Boris Johnson’s conduct in the Chris Pincher scandal.

In the Spring Budget, the Government pledged a radical increase in ‘free’ childcare for children under three which will come into effect in the next two years. Critics say it could result in more childcare providers closing if it is not fully funded. Studies show chronic staffing shortages and underfunding of ‘free’ provision for three and four year olds have contributed to a worrying outlook for the sector in recent years.

Early years experts are worried that the constant turnover of ministers will make for greater uncertainty in the sector at a time of great change.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “While we congratulate Claire Coutinho on her promotion, the fact that the early years will soon be on its tenth minister in as many years is beyond frustrating for the sector. 

“The fact that government expects providers to put up with a never-ending revolving door of ministers is bad enough, but to do so as the sector prepares to roll out its biggest early years expansion in recent history is bordering on negligent.

“What we need more than ever over the coming months is consistent policy, driven by ministers who have a clear understanding of the early years sector and the challenges it faces. This reshuffle is likely to deliver the exact opposite.”

Sarah Ronan, Acting Director of Early Education Childcare Coalition, a group of early years providers, parents’ group and experts, said: “We congratulate David Johnston on his appointment as Children’s Minister. We are hopeful that in his constituency work and his role as Chair of the Social Mobility APPG, Mr Johnston will have seen first hand the challenges faced by parents in accessing affordable provision, but also the benefits to the lives of our most disadvantaged children when they are able to access high-quality education and care.

“Mr Johnston is the fourth office holder in less than a year. At such a critical time for the sector, ahead of the biggest expansion of early education provision, it’s absolutely vital that this brief has stability and consistency. Nothing is as important to our development as people and citizens as the first five years of our lives. Appointments to this office should reflect that and we are hopeful that is the case here. The Coalition and its members look forward to working with him to overcome the many other challenges facing the sector at this critical juncture.”

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