Poorest children losing out on vital early years education

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A majority of disadvantaged three and four-year-olds are being “locked out” of key early years education thanks to the government’s 30-hour policy.

New research has revealed that 70 per cent of families who are eligible for the 30 free hours of early education and childcare are in the top half of earners and just 13 per cent of eligible families come from the bottom third.

Indeed, only one in five of families in the bottom third of the earnings distribution are eligible for the entitlement.

The situation seems bizarre given that at age two, the very poorest children are given greater access to funded early education and care, many of these same children are then given access to fewer funded hours at age three and four.

The Sutton Trust – the social mobility charity behind the research – says that as a result the 30-hour policy is serving to “compound inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic and impact on children’s life chances.

Campaigners are now calling for the 30-hour policy to be made universal in England – similar to the system introduced in Scotland this summer.

The current situation means that all three and four-year-olds in England are entitled to 15 hours of early education and childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year.

However, since 2017, children in families where both parents are working (or in a single-parent family where the parent is in work) and earning above a certain income level per week are entitled to an additional 15 hours. There is a salary cap for eligibility, but this only comes into effect if either or both parent earns more than £100,000, meaning two parents could have a combined income of £199,998 and still be eligible.

The report argues that access to high-quality early education has a significant impact on outcomes later in life.

Currently, the poorest children are on average 11 months behind their peers when they start at primary school. Evidence in the report suggests this gap has started to widen in recent years and has been exacerbated by the 30-hour policy. The pandemic has made matters worse.

Survey data finds that 54 per cent of primary school leaderssaid that fewer pupils were “school-ready” when they started Reception this year than they would usually expect. The vast majority of primary schools are particularly concerned about the communication and language skills of those children who began in Reception last September.

The current 30-hour entitlement costs around £770m a year, with the universal 15-hour offer costing £2.2bn. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates suggest that a universal entitlement for all three and four-year-olds could cost £250m.

Early years providers interviewed for the report would welcome additional hours for more children, but only if funding levels per-hour were increased, perhaps via the early years Pupil Premium.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust and chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “The poorest children start school almost a year behind their peers. This is a truly shocking finding when you consider that the gap between low-income children and their better off peers widens over time.

“We know how important high-quality early education is for young children, yet the poorest three and four-year-olds are locked out of these opportunities, simply because their parents do not earn enough. This is a national scandal.

“We wouldn’t accept the state providing longer school hours for well-off families, and we shouldn’t accept it in the early years. If we want to make our school system fairer, it needs to begin with giving every child the foundation to succeed at school.

“As the research shows, a small increase in spending could widen access to early education. But expanding access must go hand-in-hand with improving quality, which is also key for making a lasting impact on children’s life chances.”

  • Pascal et al: A fair start? Equalising access to early education, Sutton Trust, August 2021: https://bit.ly/3zu8tRP

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