The Family and Childcare Trust research, which forms part of its annual Childcare Costs Survey to be published in March, reveals that only three-quarters of the 130,000 two-year-olds that became eligible for a free place in September 2013 had taken it up.
Around a quarter of those eligible for the free early education funding, the equivalent of 30,000, are currently without a free early education place.
The Family and Childcare trust claims there are big variances between local authorities in the proportions of children taking up a place, with the policy 'failing' in some areas.
According to the Trust, Department for Education figures for 2012-13 show that last November 37 local authorities had provided less than 60 per cent of eligible two-year-olds with a free place. Of these 37 local authorities, 25 were in London.
The lowest average take-up of places was in London, with just 51 per cent of eligible two-year-olds receiving the funding in November 2013.
The highest average take-up of places was in the South West and Yorkshire and Humber at 91 per cent.
By this September local authorities will be expected to find 277,000 places for the 40 per cent most disadvantaged two-year-olds.
Anand Shukla, chief executive of the Family and Childcare Trust, said, ‘This flagship policy is vital to the long-term outcomes of England’s most disadvantaged two-year-olds and to close the attainment gap between more advantaged and disadvantaged children.’
‘We know this is a challenging ask, but local authorities must deliver on this policy. They need to make sure that local children’s centres are fully utilised and funded to provide the necessary places for the two-year-olds who are missing out. They also need to take advantaged of the time-limited offer of grants and other support available to them from central Government to expand provision.’
Ryan Shorthouse, director of think-tank Bright Blue, said, ‘If we are to seriously enhance educational attainment and equity in this country, we need to build a high-quality formal childcare system that all parents – especially the poorest – can access. So it is worrying that a quarter of eligible parents of two-year-olds are not taking advantage of the free hours they are entitled to.
‘An increase in the diversity and capacity of childcare provision is essential. The absurd rule that good or outstanding childminders also have to be part of a local authority childminding network has thankfully been dropped. But local authorities will have to be better in working with childminders to ensure they can take advantage of the free entitlement funding. And the chair of Ofsted and the minister of education and childcare are right that school nurseries should take on two-year-olds.’
Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Assocation for Childcare and Early Years, said, 'These figures show that there needs to be better working partnerships between local authorities and parents to communicate the flexible range of care offered by childcare professionals.
'PACEY knows that high quality childminders working in domestic settings, are struggling to receive free entitlement funding, which limits accessibility and choice for parents. Not all children will be best suited to a nursery setting at age two.
'Local authorities need to be doing more to communicate the benefits of all childcare settings – not just nurseries – and ensuring that families have accessible information around the benefits of each setting.'
Education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss said, 'Just two months into the scheme offering free childcare to the most disadvantaged two year olds, over 70 per cent of parents are taking up places. This is a great achievement, and a huge increase on the 20,000 two year olds who were accessing early education in 2010. And with over 300,000 places available across the country, there are sufficient places for all eligible two-year-olds whose parents want to take up the offer.
'We are working closely with local authorities with lower take-up rates in reaching out to all families who are eligible for the scheme, and evidence shows that the use of childcare in disadvantaged areas has increased by 16 per cent from 2012 to 2013. But ultimately it is for parents to decide whether they want to take up the place for their child.
'The Government is also helping the development of even more high quality places. We are encouraging school nurseries to open from 8-6 and offer more flexible hours for part time workers. It's also why we are establishing childminder agencies to increase the number of childminders and cutting red tape for nurseries to enable good ones to expand.'