The findings show that children who go on to claim Free School Meals are less likely to use their full entitlement to funded places than children not eligible for them.
The researchers from the London School of Economics and Political Science found that almost one in five children delays taking up a free place in pre-school education, most of them from low-income families.
Around one third of 'persistently poor children' delayed, compared to one sixth of their higher-income peers.
They say that 'very little is known' about how take-up rates of the free entitlement vary for children from different backgrounds, and that there have been no nationwide studies to look at how duration varies by background.
Using the National Pupil database the academics examined the data for all autumn-born four-year-olds attending early years settings in January 2011, to find out if they had taken up their free place when they first became eligible in January 2010.
The sample was made up of 205,865 children born between September and December 2006 (inclusive) who accessed a funded place in January 2011 and turned three in autumn 2009.
They found that one in five children did not access their place from the start of their eligibility, and that the proportion was much higher among low-income families.
The findings show that children who claimed free school meals (FSM) for the first three years of primary school were 13 percentage points less likely to attend for the full five terms of free pre-school education than children from higher-income families who never claim FSM.
Children who speak English as an additional language were also three times more likely not to take up the full five terms of funded early years education as children who speak English at home.
The paper, Universal early education: who benefits?, says, ‘With over £2,000 now allocated annually to each eligible child, these places have become the central initiative aimed at creating a more equitable start for children in England. This is especially true given the squeeze since 2010 on funding for other early childhood initiatives, including Sure Start children’s centres, as well as reductions in cash benefits for families with young children.’
Difference in types of provision
The researchers also looked at whether the type of pre-school provision available locally made a difference to take-up.
They found that in areas where more children take their places in Sure Start centres, take-up was highest among all children – and the gap between low- and higher-income children much smaller. In areas with most provision in school nurseries, children tend to take up a shorter duration of free pre-school – but the gap in access between low and higher-income families is small. In contrast, areas with most pre-school places provided through the private sector have the largest gap in take-up between low- and higher-income families.
The academics conclude that recent policy initiatives such as 30 hour childcare, which allows parents earning up to £100,000 each to access it, are ‘increasing the extent to which subsidies for early education are concentrated disproportionately on children who least need a head start.’
They say that ‘an autumn-born child in a higher-income working family will benefit from five terms at 30 hours compared to three terms at 15 hours for a summer-born [child] in a family whose parents are unemployed.
‘Without serious attention to this issue, the universal free places, while hailed as a great success in the prevalent policy discourse, look set to play a part in embedding or widening inequalities, in direct contrast to stated policy aims.’
Co-author Dr Tammy Campbell said, ‘Universally funded pre-school education is not, in fact, being accessed equally by all children.
‘The families who are benefitting most from the policy are those who are already advantaged in many ways – while low-income children miss out. The recent introduction of more free hours for parents earning up to £100,000 per annum is likely to worsen this situation, as well as closures of accessible provision in the state and voluntary sectors, including Sure Start centres. It’s time for a clear and transparent reassessment of the purpose of funding for the pre-school stage – looking properly at which children win under the current system, and at who misses out.’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘Despite the Government continuing to stress the need to improve social mobility, here we have yet more evidence that the so-called free entitlement schemes in this country disproportionately benefit more-well-off families.
‘Add to this the fact that such schemes exclude the most disadvantaged families altogether while being open to couples earning up to £200,000 between them, and that sustained underfunding has led many childcare providers to rely on additional charges, meaning that often parents aren't able to access genuinely 'free' hours, and it's clear that the government is at risk of embedding inequality into the heart of its flagship policy.
‘If ministers are genuinely committed to closing the gap between more disadvantaged children and their peers, then they need to look again at “free” childcare, and ensure both that the scheme is properly funded, now and in the future, and that those families who would benefit most from increased access to quality childcare aren't missing out.’
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said, ‘The results of this report are not surprising, but very concerning. Unless action is taken now, the inequality gap will continue to grow and social mobility will stall.
‘Research clearly confirms early years as a key time for intervention in order to bring about the best outcomes for all children.
‘We need to fully understand why these families aren’t taking up the place their child is entitled to, what barriers may exist to prevent them and how these can be removed.'
Referring to the Government's social mobility plan, which aims to tackle development gaps at the earliest opportunity with investment to expand nursery provision in schools, she added, ‘But it must invest in the high-quality private nurseries that deliver the largest proportion of funded places in England so they can support these children effectively.
'A key action of the Government’s early years workforce strategy was to place more graduate teachers in settings within deprived areas, but the right level of investment needs to be in place for this to happen.
‘With the right resources in place, nurseries have the expertise to be able to reach out and engage with families but they need the sufficient staff to be able to work with families in their local area.’
- The paper, Universal early education: who benefits? Patterns in take-up of the entitlement to free early education among three-year-olds in England is published in the British Educational Research Journal. It was funded by Nuffield Education.