The Sutton Trust has published a major piece of research that sets out the case for improving access to early education for the poorest children.
The first four years of children’s lives play a significant role in determining their chances later in life. It is a crucial period for educational equality, as it is when the gap in outcomes between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers first takes hold.
However, access to early years education in England is unequal. Most of the country’s poorest families are locked out of the entitlement to 30 hours of funded provision at age three to four, as the additional entitlement is only for children of ‘working parents’.
But those from low- or no-income homes are the very children who stand to benefit most from access to high quality early education, with research consistently showing that an effective way to help children start school on a more equal footing is through access to high quality early education. Evidence also suggests that the 30 hours entitlement may be contributing to a widening of the attainment gap – a gap which will only be exacerbated further by the effects of the pandemic.
The Sutton Trust’s A Fair Start? campaign aims to improve access to early years education to the most disadvantaged children. Access to high quality provision for lower income children can help to close gaps before school starts and provide crucial development opportunities. This is more important than ever in the wake of the pandemic, with the poorest families suffering most from the crisis.
• 70% of children eligible for the current 30 hours entitlement are in the top half of the earnings distribution.
• While total spending on the early years has risen since 2007-08, the profile of spending priorities has changed: subsidies explicitly targeted at low-income families have fallen from 45% of the total then to under 30% ten years later.
• Almost 80% of early years settings surveyed would favour extending the current offer to disadvantaged children if funding was raised to a sufficient level to meet their costs.
• 40% of providers support making the 30 hour entitlement fully universal. Those working in the most deprived parts of the country were more likely to favour making it universal.
• 75% of early years providers say that current funding provided per hour for the 30 hour entitlement does not meet their costs.
• Over half (54%) of primary senior leaders surveyed said fewer pupils were “school ready” when they started reception this year than they would usually expect, highlighting the need for additional support for these children as we come out of the crisis.
What needs to change?
The Sutton Trust is calling for:
1. Equal access to early education and childcare
Access to the 30-hour entitlement should be extended to families on the lowest incomes. This could range from an expansion to those eligible for the two-year-old offer, through to making the entitlement universal. Universality has several potential benefits, including simplifying access for families, providers and local authorities, giving greater financial security to settings, and giving greater confidence to parents seeking to re-enter the jobs market, increase their hours or retrain. An extension to a universal entitlement for all three- and four-year-olds would cost £250 million, an increase in overall spending on the existing entitlements for this age group of just 9%, which would extend eligibility to 80% of children in the bottom third of the income distribution for the first time.
2. Better funding for disadvantaged children
The government should provide additional funding for disadvantaged children, for example through increasing the Early Years Pupil Premium, so that hours provided are of a high quality and serve the poorest communities. Doing so has the added benefit of providing settings with an incentive to recruit children from families on low incomes, as well as ensuring settings serving the poorest areas remain sustainable into the long term.
3. A focus on quality
To qualify for the extension, providers should be required to meet certain evidencebased quality criteria. Increased funding is also needed, for example a Leadership Quality Fund recommended by the Trust, to improve pay and conditions for staff, so that settings can attract and retain a well-qualified workforce, as well as investment in CPD and career pathways.