The think tank says that making it easier for parents to work and access high quality early education is vital because it increases family income and makes a difference to children's early development before they start school.
CentreForum’s paper on early years also calls for higher qualification requirements for staff working with children from poorer backgrounds to help narrow the gap between them and their more affluent peers.
The liberal think tank’s report says that while politicians have grasped the importance of early intervention, successive governments have been unclear about the outcomes they want to achieve.
It says that the Government must be explicit about defining what ‘narrowing the gap’ means and how progress will be measured, so that no child is held back and all have a chance to succeed.
The paper sets out a number of ways that the gap can be narrowed between pre-school children.
Janet Grauberg, editor of the report, Early Years: Valuable Ends and Effective Means, said, ‘The last 20 years have seen a real consensus build around the case for government action to promote early childhood education and care. But a lack of clarity about the purpose of government intervention has led to a confusing mix of policies, which makes it tough for parents and providers and means that children aren’t getting the best start.
‘The evidence is really strong that high quality early years education, alongside measures to improve family income, can make a real difference in narrowing the gap in young children’s outcomes, and the next government should be bold in making this their priority.’
Contributors to the report include Naomi Eisenstadt, former national director of Sure Start and now at the University of Oxford, who recommends that the two-year-old programme should be scaled back and focused on the 20 per cent most disadvantaged, with savings made ploughed back into funding for training to ensure that all childcare staff are qualified to a minimum Level 3.
There should also be supply-side funding to childcare providers to ensure highly qualified staff working with children, not just in managerial and supervisory roles, she said, and the early years pupil premium should be conditional on settings employing more highly qualified staff, teacher or equivalents (Level 6) and Early Years Educators.
Ms Eisenstadt also said that children’s centres could focus on supporting skills for parents of two- and three-year-olds.
Barnardo’s, the Early Intervention Foundation, the Family and Childcare Trust, and the London School of Economics have also contributed to the report.
Victoria Flint, head of communications at the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, said, ‘The CentreForum is right to call on the Government to focus on quality improvement in early years sector, as we know that high quality childcare is vital to improving social, emotional and educational outcomes for children – and particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ensuring that all childcare settings receive improved support to invest in training and quality improvement for their staff is a key priority to help achieve this.
She said that many childminders have difficulty accessing the appropriate funding support to deliver the free entitlement.
‘These existing funding challenges need to be addressed if any expansion is to succeed. It will also be important to ensure that all families eligible for any expansion of the free entitlement are aware of the full range of childcare settings available to them,' she said.
4Children chief executive Anne Longfield said, 'Juggling childcare is a daily challenge for many parents. Extending free childcare for two, three and four-year-olds from 15 hours a week to 25 hours a week would make a real difference to parents who want to find a job or increase the number of hours they work.
'But we want political parties to go further and sign up to a universal guarantee of quality, affordable, childcare for every parent of a 0-14 year-old who needs it.'