Shame I never got to interview the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, when she was in Totnes. She’d have loved answering my questions…

Fellow citizen-journalist editor, Peter Shearn of Totnes Pulse, contacted me to see if I would like to interview the secretary of state for education, Gillian Keegan. Apparently she had elected to kill two birds with one stone and give a ‘puff’ to the government’s free childcare for two-year-olds, and (presumably) to the re-election chances of the increasingly beleaguered incumbent Tory MP, Anthony Mangnall, whose hitherto ‘safe seat’ is threatened by the South Devon Primary’s very strong People’s Champion – the LibDems’ Caroline Voaden.

Naturally, I jumped at the chance, and stayed up into the small hours researching the government’s record and the various reports from the likes of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Fawcett Society. All the while, though, in the back of my head was a nagging feeling that someone with half a brain would google me and realise that West Country Voices is not, perhaps, the most sympathetic publication when it comes to the current hideous incarnation of the Tory party.

Sure enough, the next morning I got a call.

“I am sorry to say that the schedule has changed and there is no longer any time for your interview.”

“Oh. Is Ms Keegan still visiting the nursery?”

A pause, and then:

“I am sorry to say that the schedule has changed and there is no longer any time for your interview.”

“Is she not doing interviews at all, then?”

“I am sorry to say that the schedule has changed and there is no longer any time for your interview.”

Did I say half a brain? I meant a bot…

Now, it is of course entirely possible that the schedule changed ‒ but the seemingly more accommodating Totnes Today, published by the Surrey-based Tindle Newspaper Group, did get to attend and to ask questions; but without, it appears, challenging the validity of the minister’s assertions.

Anyway, if I had had the opportunity, here’s what I would have asked:

Why have the Conservatives spent most of the last 14 years closing Labour’s Sure Start centres?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that participation in Sure Start greatly improved disadvantaged children’s GCSE results, yet the Tories cut funding by 60 per cent, causing many centres to close or offer a reduced service. Does this government value investment in children at all?

Is this latest stunt just a bit of pre-election pump priming?

Is this more about babysitting rather than education?

How can parents get back into work if this scheme is only offered to those already IN work? What help is this to the poorest and most disadvantaged?

The government introduced new childcare ratios in September 2023. Was this motivated by the realisation that, thanks to Brexit, low pay and lack of funding for training, there is a drastic shortage of qualified staff?

Nearly half of areas do not have enough available spaces for children under two, and a third don’t have enough space for three and four-year-olds, according to the latest Coram report.

Does Keegan really believe that one individual member of staff can safely look after a group of five two-year-olds? (I should imagine that the collective noun for that is a ‘stress’!) Why has government not listened to the concerns of the Early Years Alliance, which slammed as “ludicrous, pointless and potentially dangerous” the government’s plans to relax childcare ratios?

Is this just another instance of this government’s ongoing strategy for directing public money into private pockets?

A 2023 report by UCL, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, warned that nurseries were being snapped up by profit-focused companies that were “heavily indebted” with “risky financial operating models [that] could threaten the provision of nursery places”. The research found “market dynamics can lead to insufficient coverage in poorer, less profitable areas”.

Would Keegan care to comment on the report’s findings that:

“Large ‘private-for-profit’ childcare companies are not transparent about how they spend the public money they receive. This includes the money received for government-funded childcare hours and the subsidies for parental fees via tax credits or the benefits system.

“These large childcare companies have increased their market share, without a substantial increase in childcare places. In England, private-for-profit nurseries provided 707,000 childcare places (70 per cent of all group-based nursery places) in 2021.

“The proportion of income spent on wages is lower for the private-for-profit childcare companies than for the not-for-profit companies, with staff across the sector being poorly paid, and many paid below the national living wage.”

Finally, would Keegan like to explain how, exactly, she proposed to deal with the fact that the National Audit Office has concluded that the likelihood of her department being able to deliver the funded places it has promised for September 2024 and 2025 is “amber” at best and “red” at worst?

Funnily enough, Ms Keegan might have taken the view that she did not want to be asked even one of these pertinent questions. Much easier to just spew out the press release.

When will she, Sunak and other ministers stop treating us like idiots, to be seduced by empty promises and undeliverable schemes?

There is only one option open to us. Vote them out.

For further reading, you might like to look at the Fawcett Society’s report, supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

For information on how to vote tactically (effectively!), visit