Make 30 hours funded childcare universal to close the attainment gap

Katy Morton
Thursday, August 19, 2021

A new report renews the call for all children to be made eligible for the extended entitlement amid concerns the Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

The Sutton Trust has called it a 'national scandal' that the poorest three and four-year-olds are 'locked out' of the 30 hours policy
The Sutton Trust has called it a 'national scandal' that the poorest three and four-year-olds are 'locked out' of the 30 hours policy

According to the Sutton Trust report in partnership with the Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust, which focuses on the early years, the 30 hours policy ‘effectively ‘locks out the poorest children from state funded early education opportunities simply because their parents don’t earn enough.’

It says that this only ‘compounds inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic and will impact upon their life chances.’

The report is published as part of the Sutton Trust’s ‘A Fair Start?” campaign to give poorer children the same access to early years education as their richer peers.

It highlights how the current policy disproportionately benefits more advantaged families with 70 per cent of those eligible for the extended entitlement in the top half of earners, while just 13 per cent are in the bottom third of the income distribution.

The report goes on to refer to evidence from the Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) that suggests the gap between the poorest children and their peers has started to widen in recent years, which has gotten worse due to the 30 hours and the ‘inequality associated with it’.

The Sutton Trust says these ‘gaps’ will only widen as a result of the pandemic. Over half (54 per cent) of primary school leaders surveyed by TeacherTapp [a daily survey app for teachers] for the report said fewer pupils were “school ready” when they started Reception this year than they would usually expect.

Polling of 702 primary school leaders was carried out via Teacher Tapp in June 2021.

To close the attainment gap before school starts, it recommends expanding access to ‘high-quality’ early years education, which would also help to ‘provide flexibility to parents moving back into employment, re-training or increasing their hours at work, says the report.

Modelling by the Institute for Fiscal studies suggests making all three and four-year-olds eligible for the 30 hours would cost an extra £165 million a year by 2024-25, if hourly funding rates remain frozen in cash terms. Or a cost of £250 million if spending on places rose by 9 per cent.

What the sector thinks

Early years providers interviewed by CREC for the report welcomed the idea of extending the 30 hours, but felt it would only be feasible if funding levels were increased. Some suggested offering the additional funding through an increase to the early years pupil premium to incentivise settings to offer places to more disadvantaged children or those with additional needs.

Almost 80 per cent of early years settings surveyed by the Early Years Alliance (EYA) said they would favour making the 30 hours available to disadvantaged children if funding was provided at a level to meet their costs. A total of 40 per cent backed making the entitlement available to all children.

The Sutton Trust goes on to recommend that providers be required to meet certain evidence-based quality criteria to qualify for the extension of the 30 hours, for example employing a graduate leader and/or a certain proportion of staff qualified to Level 3, and providing professional development opportunities to their workforce.

The Trust believes that making the entitlement universal would have substantial benefits for social mobility and help to give every child the best start in life. A universal entitlement would be similar to the system Scotland has just introduced. It says it would also simplify the system and make it easier to navigate for parents and early years providers.

The largest group that would benefit from an extension of the scheme would be children in the 16 per cent of families with no earnings.

‘This is a national scandal’

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust and chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, said, ‘We know how important high-quality early education is for young children, yet the poorest three- and four-year-olds are locked out of these opportunities, simply because their parents do not earn enough. This is a national scandal.

‘We wouldn’t accept the state providing longer school hours for well-off families, and we shouldn’t accept it in the early years. If we want to make our school system fairer, it needs to begin with giving every child the foundation to succeed at school.’

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, which contributed research for the report, said, 'If the Government is genuinely committed to improving the life chances of all children, then clearly it needs to invest in the sector that is proven to have the biggest impact on long-term learning and development: the early years.'

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said, 'We know the early years of a child’s life are the most crucial, which is why every three and four-year-old in England is eligible for 15 hours of free childcare a week, no matter their circumstances or family income, with 90 per cent taking up this offer as of January.

'We have put unprecedented investment into childcare over the past decade, spending over £3.5 billion in each of the past three years for our free childcare entitlements – including 15 hours per week for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. Our 30 hours offer supports working parents, including single parents on incomes as low as £7,500 a year, helping them work more flexibly or increase their hours.'

Early years organisations including the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) and PACEY (Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years) backed the idea of expanding the 30 hours, but not without more investment from the Government to cover the actual cost of a childcare place.

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