England’s early years education expansion locks out disadvantaged children and lacks focus on quality

New research published today by the Sutton Trust concludes that the recent government announcement of a large-scale expansion to England’s early childhood education and care system risks widening gaps in child development and worsening quality.

The research highlights major issues with England’s current system that will be exacerbated by the government’s planned expansion. In particular, a large proportion of the poorest children are locked out of extra early years education, rates paid by the government to providers are insufficient to cover their costs and planned changes to staff ratios and qualifications risk worsening the quality of education and care.

The report, World Class – by researchers at RAND Europe, examines the early years systems of a range of countries to identify the best combination of approaches for high-quality education and identify lessons for England. It highlights that the government’s expansion plans treat early years solely as childcare, ignoring the substantial educational and economic benefits of high-quality universal provision.

Alongside the research, the Sutton Trust compared the cost and affordability of early years education for low-income families in England and other countries, taking into account existing and planned government-funded provision.

The cost of 30 hours early years education for an English family of two parents earning a combined income of about £16,500 and with two young children aged two and three, equates to 8% of their income if they do not meet eligibility criteria for additional funded provision. This is considerably more than a similar family in Estonia (0%), Denmark (3%), Iceland (4%), Ireland (5%), and Sweden (5%) about the same as Australia (8%); but less than Quebec (10%), Slovenia (21%) and the USA (a staggering 39%). The analysis places England closer to the most affordable systems for low-income families than the least, meaning England could be on par with the world’s leading systems for access to early years, if current disparities with eligibility for the very poorest children are addressed.

Family profiles released by the Sutton Trust demonstrate the complex and unfair eligibility rules in England:

Family 1: Eligible for 30 hours of government childcare support 

Mum, Saliha, is a sales director earning £90,000 a year and Dad, Morris, is an NHS consultant, earning £90,000 a year. Their 3-year-old daughter, Amy, attends nursery full-time (50 hours per week). The family receive 30 hours of free childcare per week in term time because both parents are in full time work. They pay for extra nursery hours so their daughter can attend full time, costing a total of £179 per week or £717 a month (5% of income per year).

Family 2: Only eligible for 15 hours government childcare support, despite both being in work 

Dad, Adil, is a full-time roofer earning £34,000 and Mum, Zara, is a beautician working 10 hours a week and earning National Living Wage / £5,418. Their 3-year-old son, Marley, attends nursery part-time. The family receives 15 hours of free childcare per week during term time, with Zara’s parents helping out where they can in nursery holidays. They don’t qualify for 30 hours because Mum Zara doesn’t work enough hours, so they are only sending their child 15 hours per week. Zara would like to increase her hours but can’t because of the catch-22 of having no one to care for their son so that she can work more and eventually become eligible for funded hours.

Family 3: Only eligible for 15 hours government childcare support, despite one being in full-time work and the other a full-time student 

Dad, Alex, is a full-time plumber earning £40,400 and Mum, Maryam, is a student nurse in the final year of her course. As a full-time student, Maryam doesn’t get paid. 4-year-old son, Leo, attends nursery full-time (50 hours per week). The family receives 15 hours per week of free childcare during term time. They don’t qualify for 30 hours as Mum is a student. They have to pay full costs outside of term time, costing an average over the year of £284 per week or £1,135 a month. This is 34% of the family’s income.

The report sets out a range of measures, drawing on best practice from around the world, for England’s early years system to become an international exemplar:

Highly-qualified staff are key. England should provide financial support and protected time for qualifications and training, the Graduate Leader Fund should be reinstated and targeted to areas with higher disadvantage, and early years staff wages should be increased.

A higher number of staff to children is essential for better quality provision. England should at a minimum maintain and ideally increase the number of staff per child in early years settings – other than at age two and under, where England’s ratio is broadly in line with other countries with high quality provision.

England should remove barriers for disadvantaged families to increase participation. There should be equal access to early years provision for all children, particularly at ages two, three and four – where there is greater evidence of educational benefit. Either the government’s free early year entitlements should be expanded to lower income families, or alternative models such as a sliding fee scale based on parental income could provide equal access at an affordable funding level for the state.

Early years provision should include support for families. England should capitalise on the previous work of Sure Start Centres and current Family Hubs to offer combined services (also including health and family support services) – ideally to all families, but at a minimum as universal provision in the most disadvantaged areas.

Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Chairman of the Sutton Trust and Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“By the time disadvantaged young children start school they are already behind their better-off peers. By treating early years provision solely as childcare, we are storing up inequalities for the future.

“As a rich country, we should have a better education system. By drawing on best practice from around the world, we could create an early years system that sets young children on a path to a lifetime of success. Further investment is now needed to make this a reality.”

Elena Rosa Brown, Research Leader in Early Years and Education at RAND Europe, said:

“Good quality early years education is crucial if every child is to get a fair and equal chance in life. Gathering best practice from around the world, we’re able to now create a blueprint for early years education in England. From developing workforce capability to engaging disadvantaged families, we need to act to ensure all children progress, particularly those facing disadvantage.”