Disadvantaged children risk losing out under the government’s scheme to double the amount of free early education for many three- and four-year-olds, the Sutton Trust has warned.
A report published today by the trust points out that children from disadvantaged families already lag behind their more advantaged peers by roughly 11 months when they start school.
But it says the gap could widen as the relatively advantaged children of working parents are now offered 30 hours a week of free early education.
The report, Closing Gaps Early, by Kitty Stewart of the London School of Economics and Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, emphasises that high-quality early years provision – delivered by qualified professionals – is crucial for boosting the development of the poorest two- and three-year-olds.
But it says a number of recent policy developments have put this in jeopardy, including:
- Axeing financial support for graduate training for early years professionals.
- Lifting the requirement for Sure Start centres in disadvantaged areas to offer graduate-led early education.
- Most recently, by proposing to remove the requirement for nursery and reception classes to have a qualified teacher.
It also reveals that one-third of staff working in nurseries still lack either English or Maths at GCSE, or both, at grade C or above.
Focusing on early years
Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, said: “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,”
He added: “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.”
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, the percentage of children eligible for free school meals who reached a “good level of development” by the end of reception year was 21.2 percentage points lower than their classmates – but by 2015, this gap had narrowed to 17.7 percentage points.
And it is calling for funding to be 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.
'Extra money for education'
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of the Early Education charity, said: “If anyone [would] benefit from additional hours it is the most disadvantaged children.
"There are areas where we know people have already been funding 30 hours for the most disadvantaged children and if those children are being displaced or there isn’t the funding for those hours for non-working parents then it appears this could increase the gap and have a negative impact on the most vulnerable children.”
And Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT headteachers’ union, added: “We want to see extra money for education, including early education before children start school and renewed investment in critical services for families. Without proper investment, the youngest and most vulnerable in our society will be starting off behind, with uncertain chances of catching up.”
The report comes after the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said the UK would “benefit enormously” from giving disadvantaged children a good start.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Alongside our 30 hours free childcare offer, we are spending over £2.5 billion 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 2-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. ”