New minister on message
Monday, September 15, 2014
Laura McCardle meets Sam Gyimah, minister for childcare
Sam Gyimah epitomises the new broom that entered the Department for Education in July when Prime Minister David Cameron reshuffled his ministerial pack.
Just like new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, the MP for East Surrey has been in parliament for just four years and has little in the way of a track record in education or children's services.
So it was somewhat of a surprise when Gyimah was appointed childcare minister to replace Elizabeth Truss - who was promoted to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – ahead of other backbench MPs known to the sector such as Claire Perry and Andrea Leadsom. His connections to the Prime Minister – he was appointed as parliamentary private secretary to Cameron in September 2012 before becoming a government whip in October 2013 – must have helped.
Outside of politics, Gyimah's background is in business. He studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University and began a career in the business sector after gaining a place on a graduate scheme at Goldman Sachs.
Other than serving as a governor on the board of a London school, Gyimah's experience of family and childcare policy appears to be limited to the fact he has a four-month-old baby son.
But with early years education set to be a key battlefield at next year's general election, Gyimah is going to have to brush up on his knowledge, and fast, if he is to convince anyone he is here to stay.
Despite this obvious lack of sector experience, Gyimah has been well briefed on his new portfolio when he meets CYP Now and is able to reel off a long menu of policies introduced by his predecessor.
"There are a great number of policies that we are in the process of implementing that I want to make sure we successfully implement," he says, before citing the expansion of the free two-year-old childcare entitlement and the controversial introduction of childminder agencies as his main policy priorities.
Childminder agencies, which officially launched on 1 September, were introduced through the Children and Families Act 2014.
The policy appeared to widen the gnawing chasm between the early years sector and the DfE, with many hitting out at Truss for failing to listen to their concerns. But those who hoped Gyimah's appointment would represent a move to bridge this gap will be disappointed to hear him describe Truss's legacy as a "very good inheritance".
"I think Elizabeth Truss was an excellent education minister," he adds. "On her watch, a lot of those policies happened and she put a lot of energy and drive to the whole debate about making childcare more affordable, better quality and more accessible."
Better outcomes for children
Despite defending his predecessor, Gyimah is keen to regain the sector's trust and hopes that the shared goal to improve outcomes for children will override any disagreements on how that is achieved. "I won't always agree, but so long as we are all focused on helping parents give children the best start in life, I'm sure we can achieve a lot," he says.
Asked about childminder agencies, Gyimah says he can understand why the policy has been controversial. He attributes the sector's concerns to a series of "myths" about the policy, including childminders thinking they would be forced to join an agency. Explaining his take on the policy, he says childminder agencies are part of the DfE's plans to create an "innovative, diverse and flexible sector".
"Agencies allow entrepreneurs with vision to come into the sector and work out a way to support childminders, but also create new solutions for parents," he explains. "Some of the solutions I'm beginning to see are solutions that weren't necessarily envisaged as we went through the legislative process."
Gyimah then offers the example of an agency combining childminder provision with existing early years provision as part of efforts to provide wraparound care for working parents, particularly those who work unsociable hours. "There are some really exciting things happening and that's something we should not lose sight of," he says. "We've really got to champion them to make sure they are successful."
Another government policy that has drawn criticism from the early years sector in recent months is the expansion of the free childcare for two-year-olds.
The scheme, initially launched in September 2013 to deliver 15 hours of free childcare to 130,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, was doubled to 260,000 places on 1 September 2014.
Last month, an investigation by CYP Now found that 53.5 per cent of councils had failed to secure sufficient places to provide all eligible two-year-olds with access to free early years education, and together they reported a shortfall of 34,854 places.
Despite the figures suggesting a significant shortfall, Gyimah appears unmoved, instead saying that other data he has seen suggests authorities have secured enough places to provide free childcare to every eligible two-year-old whose parent has declared an interest in the scheme.
He said: "I'm confident from the data I've seen - and I've spoken to a number of councils myself - that the places should be available."
Asked about concerns expressed by many in the sector about the amount of funding invested in the scheme, he insists the rate of £5.09 per child per hour is "very generous".
Some providers have also expressed concern that local authorities do not always pass on the full amount of funding, something Gyimah is taken aback by and says should not be happening.
"If there is a place where a nursery provider has a specific problem with the local authority, my suggestion is they write to me and I will investigate it," he says. "The funding is very generous in order to make this provision happen."
Another significant policy due to launch on Gyimah's watch is the early years pupil premium, which will be introduced in April 2015 to pay for additional help for threeand four-year-olds taking up 15 hours of childcare a week.
Calls to increase funding
There have already been calls to increase the funding, which is worth £300 per child, or 53p an hour, based on the 570 hours of free care a child receives annually.
Most recently, the Liberal Democrats pledged to increase the premium to £1,000 per child if it wins next year's general election.
Asked if he agrees with the pledge, Gyimah rejects the idea and says the policy should be allowed to bed in before changing it.
"This is the first time this has been done in the early years and we will learn a lot from the process in terms of what we can do," he says.
"£300 for 170,000 children a year is a big step from the government. What we should do is implement the current policy, we will get it right, learn from the lessons and see how we do that."
Overall, Gyimah says the introduction of the three policies make his role exciting.
"These are very big positive steps for the early years sector and I'm excited that we're recognising that there is a need, and that it needs to be addressed," he explains.
In addition to the early years portfolio, Gyimah was also handed responsibility for strengthening the DfE's links with child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) - the first education minister to be given the role in an official capacity.
Like care and support minister Norman Lamb, he agrees that CAMHS are "stuck in the dark ages" and is keen to improve them.
Gyimah says the DfE gave greater weight to the role after too many children with mental health needs were falsely diagnosed as having behavioural problems by schools.
"It links with the DfE because often, if these children are at school, mental health difficulties can manifest themselves in the classroom," he explains. "Teachers are the ones who observe and become aware of this, and they need to know the difference between what is a mental health problem and what is a behavioural problem.
"It also affects their educational attainment and life chances and we're letting them down if we can't help them."
SAM GYIMAH CV
- Born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, in August 1976, Gyimah is 38 years old
- As a child, he spent 10 years in Ghana and attended a state school
- Gyimah read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University
- He began a career in the City after gaining a place on a graduate scheme with Goldman Sachs, and was voted CBI Entrepreneur of the Future in 2005
- - Gyimah ran the London Marathon in 2008 to raise money for the Down's Syndrome Association
- He was elected MP for East Surrey in 2010
- He lists his interests as the economy, education, planning and the local environment, and international development issues
- Gyimah supports Arsenal Football Club