30 hours risks widening the gap with 'quantity over quality'

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The 30 hours childcare policy could widen the gap between poorer children and their better-off peers, and should be axed unless it is properly funded, a leading education charity says today.

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The Sutton Trust review of early years policy in the UK accuses the Government of an ill-advised drive towards quantity over quality, and says that the 30 hours is being implemented at the expense of quality early years education for disadvantaged two- and three-year-olds.

It says that the policy should be reversed unless there is the funding to ensure that quality can be maintained.

The report says that Government childcare policy will not improve social mobility because it is being implemented at the expense of quality early years education for disadvantaged toddlers, and argues that the 30 hours risks the progress made in closing the gap in school readiness between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers.

Closing Gaps Early, by Dr Kitty Stewart, at the London School of Economics, and Professor Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, looks at current Government policy in the early years in light of the evidence of ‘what works’.

Previous research by the Sutton Trust found that high-quality early years provision delivered by well-qualified professionals was crucial to boosting young children’s development.

The Trust is concerned that the focus on quantity over quality could put at risk the progress that has been made in closing the gap in school readiness between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers. In 2007, there was a 21.2 percentage point gap but in 2015 this had narrowed to 17.7 percentage points.

The report also notes that while places for disadvantaged two-year-olds and the early years pupil premium are important tools for closing the gap, they are not enough in the context of cuts to benefits and tax credits for parents of young children.

According to the report, the ‘benefits cap’ and the two-child limit have introduced a separation between family needs and the level of benefits received, with devastating consequences for families affected.

dr-kitty-stewartDr Stewart, associate professor of social policy and associate director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE), told Nursery World, that she was worried that there was a move away from child development and closing the gap.

‘There’s a shift to just thinking about childcare rather than early education and towards children of working parents rather than children from lower-income backgrounds,’ she said.

While at one end of the scale parents with household earnings up to £200,000 are eligible for 30 hours, parents need to work 16 hours on the minimum wage to qualify for the offer and ‘work can be more precarious’, she said.

‘There’s a shift in the balance towards more advantaged children but that policy is going to have a more damaging effect. It’s not well enough funded so quality is going to be squeezed. Changes to the national funding formula are a shift in funding towards the private and voluntary sector. I’m glad things are being evened out, but most disadvantaged children are far more likely to be in nursery schools and nursery classes in schools.’

Data analysed in the report also finds that one third of staff working in group-based care lack either English or Maths at GCSE, or both, at grade C or above.

The Trust would like to see funding secured to ensure that qualified teachers remain in place in school nursery and reception classes, with support for continuing professional development and greater career opportunities for early years professionals.

Dr Stewart highlighted how the early years workforce strategy sets out that the Government is going to consult on whether nursery schools  and classes will no longer require qualified teachers, allowing schools to employ Early Years Teachers (EYTs) to replace them.

‘The re-allocation of funding is hitting the requirement to employ teachers - they don’t have the same pay, conditions and status.

‘It makes a difference to who you retain and would lead to a watering down of the quality of staff. You can’t just assume it’s the same as having a qualified teacher.

‘More broadly the Government has backtracked on a commitment to quality with the loss of funding, such as the Graduate Leader Fund and also the damaging removal of local authority support.’

It was ‘very difficult  because of funding being squeezed’ for local authorities to provide support and training to providers, she said.

‘This will have a knock-on effect. Nurseries are supposed to fund their own training, it’s very difficult for smaller nurseries and pre-schools.’

Dr Stewart said that she agreed with the consensus in the sector that nurseries and pre-schools are being underfunded to provide the 30 hours.

‘Nurseries have been put in a very difficult position by the 30 hours - I don’t see how it’s not going to affect quality,’ she said.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said, ‘Good quality early years provision is vital to narrow the gaps that leave too many youngsters behind by the time they start school. But it’s unlikely that the Government’s policy to provide 30 hours of free childcare will provide this.

‘It is understandable that the Government wants to improve access to childcare for working parents. But this must not be at the expense of good early education for disadvantaged children. It is the quality of provision that matters.

‘Focusing on getting it right for the poorest two- and three-year-olds would make a much bigger difference to social mobility, by improving their chances at school and in later life.’

Professor Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University, said, ‘We are also concerned about the proposed cuts to family benefits - since we know that economic security is critical for children, especially in the early years.’
 
The report also calls for parental leave policies to be extended to provide enhanced entitlements for fathers, to increase father involvement and promote greater gender equity.

Sector response

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association said the report’s conclusion was cause for concern.

‘NDNA cautioned the Government against rushing out this policy across England without having the time to carefully analyse the pilot schemes and learn vital lessons from them.
‘However, instead of reinventing the wheel, we need to scrutinise the evidence of what works in early years. This must inform any changes to policy, along with meaningful, adequate investment to pay a fair hourly rate to providers.

‘There are huge challenges facing early years providers in recruiting and retaining qualified practitioners, who are the lifeblood in providing high quality early years education. The government’s workforce strategy needs to address these issues urgently.’

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said ’We agree that if we’re to have any chance of improving children’s life chances – and especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds – the government must focus on investing in quality early years provision.

'However, while investing in a highly-qualified workforce, as this report recommends, is certainly one piece of the puzzle, qualifications in and of themselves are no guarantee of quality. There are plenty of early years practitioners who may not have formal qualifications, but are experienced, passionate, caring and have an excellent understanding of child development.

‘That said, the report is right to warn that the Government is prioritising quantity over quality when it comes to delivering 30-hours places.

'Ultimately, the Government needs to decide what its priority is when it comes to early years policy: supporting children’s learning, or just getting parents back to work. Because it’s easy to talk about the importance of improving social mobility, but without the action to match those words, it’s all just empty rhetoric.’

Ellen Broomé, chief executive at the Family and Childcare Trust, said, 'There is strong evidence that early education can help to boost children’s outcomes and narrows the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers – but only if it is high quality. The Government must make sure that every child can access high quality early education.'

Tracy Brabin MP, shadow minister for Early Years, said, 'This report confirms exactly what we have been warning for months - the Tories are failing to provide high quality early years education for the children who need it most. The whole system is now being under funded and undermined.

'They have created less than a quarter of the places they promised, excluded parents on the lowest incomes, and mismanaged the scheme so badly that many families simply can't find a provider prepared to offer them the free hours they are supposedly entitled to.

'Only this week Labour outlined the alternative - genuinely free, universal and high quality early years education for every two- to four-year-old, with the resources needed to actually deliver it.'

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'Every child should receive the same high-quality care and support, regardless of their background or where they live, which is why we are increasing spending on childcare to over £6 billion per year by 2019-20  .
 
'Alongside our 30 hours free childcare offer, we are spending over £2.5bn on free childcare for disadvantaged 2-year-olds over five years, as well as providing extra support for disadvantaged families through the Early Years Pupil Premium.
 
'Our independent evaluation of the early delivery areas showed that 30 hours did not have any significant adverse effects on the two-year-old offer. This evaluation also showed the 30 hours offer supported families by taking huge pressure off their finances and helping them increase their working hours.'

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