Shift early years spending to support disadvantaged, says senior Labour MP

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Failure to invest in early years provision for less advantaged children risks creating a ‘lost generation’, a new report by Labour MP Lucy Powell has warned.

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Just 2.7 per cent of the extra £9bn funding which the Government has set aside for early years provision during this Parliament will reach the most disadvantaged children, according to a new report written by Ms Powell and published by the Social Market Foundation think tank.

The report, entitled ‘A Lost Generation: why social mobility in the early years is set to go backwards’, draws on figures provided by the House of Commons library to reveal that of the £9.1bn of new spending on childcare and early education between 2017 and 2022, just £250m is earmarked for disadvantaged children.

As a proportion of the overall early years spend, the money allocated to the Early Years Pupil Premium, the only spend which the most disadvantaged children with parents out of work will qualify for, is set to fall from four per cent in 2017-18 to 2.4 per cent by 2021-22, the report said.

The report called for social mobility in the early years to be prioritised as part of a package of proposed measures, including scrapping the Tax-Free Childcare scheme in favour of more universal ‘free hours’ for disadvantaged children, establishing a new best start guarantee and 750 fully-integrated family centres in areas of most need, and guaranteeing a high-quality early education place and teacher time guarantee for all children accessing the two-, three- and four-year-old early education offer.

In the report, former shadow minister for childcare and early years and current member of the education select committee Ms Powell called for additional early education investment  to target disadvantage rather than becoming ‘a bung for middle class parents who have had their child benefit taken away'.

Ms Powell commented, ‘This huge skewing of resources seriously risks a widening developmental gap between disadvantaged children and their better off peers at the age of five, creating a lost generation who will struggle to ever catch up.

‘Early years investment has always been a balance between supporting working families with childcare costs on the one hand and increasing life chances and social mobility for the disadvantaged on the other. However, over the coming five years under this Government we are looking at a shocking new trend with the majority of the new £9.1bn going into the early years benefitting better off families, with the most disadvantaged getting a tiny fraction of help.’ 

According to the report’s analysis of Government figures, three in 10 disadvantaged two-year-olds are still missing out on a free childcare place, and twice as many disadvantaged two-year-olds in the most deprived areas are missing out on a free childcare place compared with their disadvantaged peers living in the most affluent areas.

The report also raised concerns that while Ofsted has reported the proportion of good and outstanding nurseries in the most deprived areas is now almost equal to that of the most affluent areas, the percentage of children reaching a good level of development remains lower in these deprived areas than in areas that are better off.

Where funding is available, many disadvantaged children are unable to access high quality provision due to the lack of quality conditions attached, the report said. It estimated that in 2016-17, £250m or 10 per cent of the total spend on free hours for two-, three- and four-year-olds was spent on childcare which was rated as inadequate or requiring improvement by Ofsted.  

Ms Powell added, ‘With the development gap at five still stubbornly wide, and one in three children not ready for school, rising to half for low income children, more of the investment in the early years needs to be ruthlessly and relentlessly focused on narrowing the gap, otherwise we risk a lost generation of children.’

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