Quantity over quality

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Government funding of the early years has risen over the past few decades, but could the money have been better spent?

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Natalie Perera

Despite Brexit dominating the news and parliamentary time, ministers are beginning preparations for the much-anticipated spending review – the five-year funding settlement that the Treasury awards each Government department.

Appearing before the Education Select Committee earlier this month, schools minister Nick Gibb suggested that while all areas of education are important, ‘there were particular issues with post-16 and high-needs funding’.

The minister was right to highlight these areas. Funding for 16- to 19-year-olds is the only area of education spending that has experienced cuts since 2010, and reforms to policies for pupils with SEND has contributed to significant pressure on the high-needs budget.

So where could this leave funding for early years? IFS analysis published last year found that spending on early years has risen substantially since the early 1990s, driven by both more hours and increases to hourly funding rates. However, spending on childcare subsidies and Sure Start has fallen since 2009-10 (by 13 and 67 per cent respectively). So funding for free places now represents a larger share of early years funding.

But the big question is whether current spending rates are enabling providers to deliver high-quality education and care. A recent study on the impact of childcare in Quebec confirmed existing research that poor-quality childcare can have negative, long-run effects. So the case for prioritising quality over quantity in the early years remains strong.

So far, research on the impact of the 30 hours for working parents has been inconclusive. The policy is still very young and so the full effects remain to be seen. EPI analysis finds that there may be signs, in some areas, of providers prioritising the 30-hour offer over the offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds. But research published by the Department for Education and NatCen found that providers offering the two-year-old offer were more likely to also be offering the 30-hour offer. The same study also highlighted that, while overall engagement with the 30-hour offer is high, there are marked variations across regions and different types of providers.

While we need to continue to monitor the impact of the free entitlements, what is clear is that, ahead of the Spending Review, ministers should consider how to increase the quality of early years provision and not be tempted by policies that increase quantity alone.

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