Funded two-year-old places starting to close the gap, but higher take-up vital

Government-funded childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds has had a modest impact on children’s attainment, a study shows.

  • Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) research shows link between higher take-up of funded twos places locally and how well children do at the end of Reception
  • The Government should focus on improving access to funded places for the poorest two-year-olds

Research published today by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) shows that there has not yet been substantial progress in closing the gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers.

The analysis provides an initial picture of the impact of the national programme in supporting young children’s development, focussing on how widely families are taking up the offer and the factors that may influence differences in take-up.

Twenty per cent of two-year-olds became eligible for an early education place from September 2013, rising to 40 per cent in 2014-15.

However, while the research does not show a significant change at a national level, locally there was some evidence of a positive impact in the attainment of disadvantaged children that is linked with higher-take up of funded twos places.

The EIF said that this finding suggested that it should be a Government priority to increase take-up of two-year-old places and to try to understand why some families were not accessing the offer.

The EIF’s analysis uses the EYFS Profile scores at the end of Reception to compare two different groups of children eligible for free school meals: those who were eligible for the two-year-old offer and children who were two before the funded twos places were introduced.

Over the past five years, children’s outcomes have improved and the gap with children not eligible for free school meals has closed by a small amount.

Data for local authorities across England showed that there was a small positive relationship between increases in take-up over the first two years of the entitlement and increases in attainment of children eligible for free school meals.

However, it would take 40 years before the same proportion of children on free school meals achieved a good level of development as those not on free school meals.

Key findings:

  • Take-up is particularly low in London and Birmingham and surrounding metropolitan areas, although low take-up isn’t confined solely to large urban areas.
  • Demographic characteristics explain a significant proportion of the variation in take-up. Take-up is lower for pupils from non-White British backgrounds, and particularly low when English is an additional language spoken at home, suggesting cultural and linguistic differences could be a barrier to accessing childcare.
  • Characteristics of childcare provision locally may also be a contributory factor. In addition to the number of places available, where the concentration of maintained providers (such as schools and nurseries) is high, take-up tends to be lower, implying that not all types of providers have been able or willing to expand provision to younger children.

Tom McBride, director of evidence at EIF, said, ‘The two-year-old offer is a key plank in the Government’s efforts to close the gap in educational attainment that we know emerges before children even reach school. The Government is right to focus on the early years as a key window to tackle these inequalities before they take root. High-quality childcare is an important part of the solution, and there is good evidence to suggest it can improve long-term outcomes for disadvantaged children.

‘In this case, the evidence is more equivocal: there is little evidence to suggest the introduction of the two-year-old offer has been associated with a substantial increase in the early years educational outcomes of more disadvantaged children at the national level, but the picture at the local level is more encouraging, showing a modest impact on attainment that is associated with the proportion of children in the area who have taken up the offer.’

Donna Molloy, director of policy and practice at EIF said that it was still ‘early days’ for the two-year-old offer, but that if in the future there was not ‘clear evidence’ that it was closing the early years attainment gap, ‘then we should be open to considering whether changes to this policy are needed to ensure investment is being used to best effect.’

According to the latest data, take-up of the two-year-old offer is around 72 per cent nationally, compared to the much higher take-up of the three- and four-year-old offer, which is around 94 per cent.

Mr McBride added, ’It is vital to understand the barriers that might be preventing disadvantaged families and children from taking up this entitlement.

‘Our analysis shows a relationship, on a local level, between take-up of the two-year-old offer and disadvantaged pupils’ attainment. While administrative data can’t tell us the reasons for this finding, it does suggest that increasing take-up should be a priority for Government.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'The Government is already committed to an ambitious programme of work to narrow development gaps through our Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential action plan published in December 2017, which includes 15 hours of free childcare for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, which is being taken up by over 70 per cent of families.
'We are spending more on childcare than any other government – around £6 billion a year by 2020, including £1 billion a year to deliver our free childcare offers.'

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