Policy changes designed to provide working families with more free childcare could make quality early years education in schools less available to disadvantaged communities, a new report warns today.
Schools are likely to convert part-time nursery places to a smaller number of full-time places, when the entitlement for children from working families doubles to 30 hours next year, according to the report "Early learning and childcare: delivering for disadvantaged children in England" from academy chain Ark and thinktank Education Policy Institute (EPI).
"The new 30-hour entitlement for working families poses a risk that children from the poorest families will be squeezed out of the settings where they thrive most as schools convert part-time nursery class places to a much smaller number of full-time places, for which disadvantaged children will not qualify," the paper’s authors, Baroness Sally Morgan, advisor to the Ark Board, and Jodie Reed, Ark’s head of early years development, write.
"Whilst well-intended, this change could have a serious impact on the number of opportunities for disadvantaged children to have school-based early learning and childcare if not managed properly," they add.
The report warns that two-, three- and four-year-olds in non-working families may, as a result, find it much harder to claim their basic universal entitlement to 15 hours per week in a school-based setting.
"This change could have a catastrophic impact on the number of opportunities for disadvantaged children to access school-based early learning and childcare," the report says.
'Target investment to help disadvantaged families'
Previous research from EPI has found that only a very small proportion of low-income working families will qualify for the new entitlement.
While pre-school places are offered in both the private sector and state schools, a relatively large proportion of disadvantaged children attend school nursery classes, the report says.
And it adds that disadvantaged children in school-based settings gain benefits, not so easily replicated in other settings, such as access to a broad range of teachers and a smoother transition to primary school.
The paper makes four main recommendations:
- Provide more targeted investment to all types of providers serving disadvantaged children;
- Encourage schools in disadvantaged areas to form deep partnerships with outside providers to help drive quality;
- Encourage schools to increase the number of nursery places;
- Support strong schools to deliver flexible, school-linked provision "beyond the school gate".
Last week the Commons' public accounts committee warned that the commitment to offer 30 hours of free childcare may be in jeopardy if not enough nurseries are willing to offer places because they fear they will be left out of pocket.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All three and four-year-olds are entitled to 15 hours of free high-quality early education each week, regardless of their parents’ income or employment status.
“However, we know that parental employment is key to children’s life chances – that’s why the government is investing an extra £1 billion per year by 2019/20 to help working families with the cost of childcare - so that parents can go back to work or work longer hours if they choose to.”