MOST DISADVANTAGED THREE- AND FOUR- YEAR OLDS are ‘locked out’ of crucial early years education, which will compound inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic and impact on children’s life chances.

This is according to a landmark report published by the Sutton Trust in partnership with the Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust, which focuses on the early years. This sets out the case for improving access to early education for the poorest children.

The comprehensive report examines the impact of the current 30 hours policy; the evidence behind the need for change; and options for reform. It also looks at the views of parents, teachers, and early years providers.

Current context

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. Since 2017, children in families where both parents (or one parent in a lone-parent family) are working 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 parents earns over £100,000, meaning two parents could have a combined income of £199,998 and still be eligible.

As a result, the new research has found that the current policy disproportionately benefits more advantaged families: 70 per cent of those eligible for the full 30 hours are in the top half of earners, while just 13 per cent of eligible families are in the bottom third of the income distribution.

The case for expanding access

There is a wealth of evidence telling us that access to high quality early years education plays a significant role in shaping a young person’s outcomes later in life. But the poorest children are on average 11 months behind their peers when they start at primary school. Evidence from a literature review by the Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) for the report suggests this gap has started to widen in recent years and has been exacerbated by the 30 hours policy and the inequality associated with it.

These gaps can only widen as a result of the pandemic. Over half (54 per cent) of primary school leaders surveyed by TeacherTapp for the report said fewer pupils were ‘school ready’ when they started reception this year than they would usually expect.

Expanding access to high quality early years education is likely to close gaps before school starts, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, where the poorest families suffered the most. This access would also help to provide flexibility to parents moving back into employment, retraining, or increasing their hours at work.

The cost of expanding access

The report includes economic modelling by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) which looks at the costs of reforming the 30 hours policy so that the most disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds have access to the same number of funded hours as their peers. The current 30 hour entitlement costs around £770 million per year, with the universal 15 hour offer for three- and four- year olds costing £2.2 billion. IFS estimates suggest that extending the 30 hour entitlement to cover three- and four-year-olds who had been eligible for the two-year-old entitlement for disadvantaged children, could cost an extra £165 million a year by 2024-25, if hourly funding rates remain frozen in cash terms.

A universal entitlement for all three- and four-year-olds could cost £250 million under a central scenario of take-up rates. These central estimates mean a nine per cent increase in spending on the 3- and 4-year-old entitlements would extend eligibility for the 30 hour entitlement to 80 per cent of children in the bottom third of the earnings distribution for the first time.

By far the largest group that would benefit from this extension would be those children in the 16 per cent of families with no earnings. Extending eligibility could also reduce regional inequalities in access to the full 30 hours of funded childcare and early education. Proportionately, there are more children in the North East and Yorkshire than in the South East who are currently ineligible for the full 30 hours, but who would be brought into eligibility if the criteria were widened.

During in-depth interviews, also carried out by CREC for the report, early years providers welcomed additional hours for more children, but it was universally felt that this would only be feasible if funding levels per hour were increased. Some argued that this additional funding could be offered through an increase to the early years pupil premium in order to incentivise the offer of places to more disadvantaged children or children with additional needs.

If funding was provided at a level to meet their costs, almost 80 per cent of early years settings surveyed for this report through the Early Years Alliance would favour extending the current offer to disadvantaged children, with 40 per cent supporting making the 30-hour entitlement universal for all children.

What next?

The report is published as part of the Sutton Trust’s A Fair Start? campaign to give poorer children the same access to early years education as their richer peers. The Trust favours making the 30 hours entitlement universal, which would simplify the system, making it similar to that introduced in Scotland this summer.

However, it is important that any expansion, and the additional funding to providers, drives up quality in early education, which is most likely to improve children’s outcomes and school readiness. To qualify for the extension, the Trust believes that providers should be required to meet certain evidence-based quality criteria, for example employing a graduate leader in their setting, employing a certain proportion of staff qualified to Level 3 (A level or equivalent), and providing professional development opportunities to their workforce.

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 today’s research shows, a small increase in spending (nine per cent) 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.”

Jane Young, Director of the Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust, said: “The Sutton Trust’s excellent and comprehensive report shows in stark relief that the most disadvantaged children in England are being denied a fair start because of national policies which exclude them from the same access to early education as their more advantaged peers.  We cannot allow this situation to continue.

“The problem is clear and the negative outcomes stark, but this report offers workable solutions.  This is not a report to put on a shelf to gather dust; it must be acted upon if we are to give allour children a fair start.”

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “We know that hiqh-quality early years provision can play a huge role in narrowing the gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers, and so clearly there is a strong argument to be made for widening access to the current 30 hours offer.

“However, as this research shows, the majority of nurseries, pre-schools and childminders would only support such changes to the 30-hours policy if they are adequately funded to deliver it. The harsh reality is that for many, any extension of the scheme at current rates of funding is simply unfeasible.

“If the government is genuinely committed to improving the life chances of all children, then clearly it needs to invest in the sector that is proven to have the biggest impact on long-term learning and development: the early years.”

* Read A Fair Start? Equalising Access to Early Education here.

* Source: The Sutton Trust