Free childcare entitlement 'not levelling the playing field' for disadvantaged children

The public spending watchdog has warned that the development gap for disadvantaged children is at risk of increasing due low take-up of funded places in deprived areas and poorer quality provision.

The Department for Education (DfE) falls short of its target for the take-up of funded two-year-old places
The Department for Education (DfE) falls short of its target for the take-up of funded two-year-old places

According to the National Audit Office (NAO), which has today published a report assessing the value for money of free childcare entitlement, while take-up of the universal 15 hours childcare a week for three- and four-year-olds is high, the Department for Education (DfE) falls short of its target for the take-up of funded two-year-old places.

The DfE’s target is between 73 per cent and 77 per cent take-up among eligible two-year-olds, but the NAO says that in 2019, those benefiting from the places fell nationally to 68 per cent, and varied between 39 per cent and 97 per cent among different local authorities.

The report also highlights research by the charity Coram Family and Childcare, published last year, which found that just 63 per cent of local authorities reported having enough childcare places for disadvantaged two-year-olds.

The NAO finds that barriers to taking up the free entitlement particularly affect disadvantaged families. It refers to the DfE’s 2019 parents’ survey that showed fewer respondents in the most deprived areas were aware of the entitlement compared to those in the least deprived areas. A separate DfE survey in 2018  found 74 per cent of providers offering places charged for additional extras.

Quality of settings

The report also draws on Ofsted statistics that show deprived areas have fewer outstanding providers -  18 per cent of providers compared with 27 per cent in the least deprived areas.

As of January last year, 5,400 children eligible for two-year-old places were taking up the entitlement at a setting rated ‘requires improvement’ or inadequate by Ofsted. A total of 103,600 children taking up the universal entitlement were at settings with the two lowest ratings.

The NAO has put forward the following recommendations. The DfE should:

  • work with local authorities to develop a better understanding of the approaches that work best in increasing take-up among disadvantaged families and to assess the extent to which additional charges are a barrier to take-up, and
  • should make better use of available data to investigate the geographic variations in the take-up of the entitlements and the availability and quality of early years provision.


Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said, ‘Families with young children across the country are benefiting from their entitlement to free early education and childcare places, which aim to prepare children for school and improve their life chances.

‘However, if these entitlements are to help level the playing field, it is essential that more disadvantaged children benefit from high-quality childcare. DfE should do more to ensure that all disadvantaged families are aware of the free childcare on offer and are able to access it.’

The chair of the Public Accounts Committee Meg Hillier said, ‘This NAO report shows take-up of the Government’s childcare offer by the poorest two-year-olds has fallen, with the Department for Education failing to meet its target.

‘Parental awareness, take-up and quality of the childcare offer is much lower in poorer areas. If unchecked the gap between rich and poor will grow.

‘The Government calls this free childcare. But the reality is that 74 per cent of providers make additional charges and some providers effectively force parents to pay extra.’

The Early Years Alliance accused the Government of letting down disadvantaged families.

Chief executive Neil Leitch said, ‘The National Audit Office is right to highlight the shortcomings of current childcare policy when it comes to supporting disadvantaged families.

‘Despite all the Government’s talk of improving social mobility, the fact is that wealthier families are much more likely to benefit from so-called “free childcare” than those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As such, it’s clear that the Government must do much more to ensure that all families are not only aware of their childcare options, but also able to actually access affordable, quality places.

‘However much the Government chooses to pretend otherwise, substantial investment into the early years is needed to ensure that the sector remains sustainable in the long-term, and that providers are able to provide support to those families who need it most.’

James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders' union NAHT, added, ‘We urge Government and local authorities to redouble their efforts to ensure as many disadvantaged children as possible access the entitlements available to them.’

Tulip Siddiq MP, Labour’s shadow minister for early years, said, 'People in the least well off areas are being hit hardest by the Tories’ chronic underfunding of early years.

'Very little progress has been made in reducing the development gap between the richest and poorest children, and the NAO has confirmed that this is linked to the fact that the availability and quality of childcare is lowest in the most deprived areas.

'It was shocking to see no mention of early years in the Budget, at a time when childcare costs are soaring and many providers face closure. The government is failing the next generation and does not appear to want to do anything about it.'


Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £119 per year


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £119 per year


© MA Education 2020. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved