The research establishes a link between quality and qualification levels in early years settings and attributes differences in quality between PVI and maintained provision to the fact that there are fewer graduates in the PVI sector.
Only half of settings in the PVI sector employ graduates, while classes in schools are led by qualified teachers.
The study found that among private and voluntary providers with a graduate on the staff, the ‘quality gap’ between nurseries in disadvantaged and advantaged areas was much smaller than in nurseries without a graduate.
For children’s language and reasoning skills there was a 10 per cent quality gap between non-graduate PVI settings in the least and most disadvantaged areas, compared to only 3 per cent for graduate settings.
Researchers say that this suggests that settings without graduates 'are not well-equipped to maintain quality standards when faced with the challenge of catering for children at greater risk of language and behavioural problems.'
'However, among graduate settings the quality gradient was much less steep, and in some cases eliminated altogether.'
The report, Quality and Inequality, published by the Nuffield Foundation, calls for the recently announced pupil premium for early years to be used to encourage PVI settings in disadvantaged areas to recruit more graduates.
It says that in terms of narrowing the gap between PVI settings serving the least and most disadvantaged the findings suggest that employing a graduate makes the most difference.
It also recommends that there should be moves to phase in a requirement that all early years staff should hold a Level 3 qualification.
Supplementary analysis by Ofsted shows that settings where at least three-quarters of staff had a minimum of Level 3 and there was a graduate Early Years Professional tended to have better inspection grades.
‘Thus, better qualifications are associated with better quality for all children,’ the report says.
It also recommends that graduates should be trained to help meet the greater needs of disadvantaged children, who are more at risk of language delays.
The research team analysed data from 1,079 private, voluntary and independent nurseries and early years provision in 169 maintained nursery and primary schools in England.
Researchers examined Ofsted grades from 2008-12 inspections and used the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scales to measure quality.
Lead author Sandra Mathers said, ‘This research highlights the challenges involved in ensuring that the children who most need good quality early years provision actually receive it. It is vital that we equip nurseries and preschools with the tools and support they need to help disadvantaged children overcome the odds and reach their full potential.’
Teresa Williams, director of social research and policy at the Nuffield Foundation, said, ‘These findings show that socioeconomic disadvantage is mirrored in the quality of early years provision, meaning children from poorer backgrounds lose out again.
‘We would like to see more work done on the link between quality and graduate qualifications, specifically how we can best upskill the early years workforce and ensure that more highly qualified staff are appropriately deployed.’
Commenting on the research, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said that the PVI sector was 'wholly supportive' of increasing the number of graduates but that funding shortfalls meant that most providers simply could not afford to pay graduate-level salaries.
'The reality is that supporting disadvantaged children requires significant funding, something that this Government has so far failed to provide,' he said.
'PVI settings provide a nurturing, caring and age-appropriate environment for young children, and supply the vast majority of childcare places in this country, and yet the government continues to focus almost exclusively on school-based provision.
'The solution to the issues raised in this report isn’t to dismiss the huge existing network of PVI providers and push young children into schools because it’s the cheaper option, but rather, to tackle the current funding imbalance in the sector and ensure that PVI setting are properly supported in providing high quality care and education to the children who need it the most.'
- Read Sandra Mather's article on Quality and Inequality in the next issue of Nursery World, out on 2 June.