The number of months between the lowest income children and their richer classmates by the time they start school.
The proportion of families in the bottom third of the earnings distribution eligible for the current 30 hour entitlement.
Over half of primary senior leaders thought fewer pupils were ‘school ready’ during the pandemic.
The Sutton Trust is working with The Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust to increase access to high quality early education, and reduce the early years attainment gap before it takes hold.
We have carried out a landmark study to investigate the feasibility and potential impact of extending eligibility for the ‘30 hours’ funded early education entitlement for children aged three and four, to increase access. We found that extending this entitlement has the potential to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children, and could form a vital part of the recovery effort after the pandemic.
Access to early years education in England is not equal, with most of the country’s poorest families locked out of the government’s flagship entitlement to 30 hours of funded provision at age three to four. But these are the very children who stand to benefit most from access to high quality early education. Access for these children is more important than ever in the aftermath of the pandemic, with the poorest families suffering most from the crisis.
Access to the 30-hour entitlement for three-to-four-year-olds should be extended to families on the lowest incomes, to ensure the poorest children can have the best possible start in life. There are a number of policy options on how best to extend the entitlement to these children, from a targeted expansion to those eligible for the two-year-old offer, through to making the entitlement universal. Making the offer universal has several additional potential benefits, including simplifying access for families, providers and local authorities, which could help to improve take up, as well as giving greater levels of financial security to settings, helping them to plan into the long term and potentially improving staff retention and training.
Additional funding for disadvantaged children
The funding provided by government for the free entitlement is not enough to meet many provider’s costs, leaving them to make up the extra in other paid for hours or through additional charges. Many providers struggle to provide high quality provision, and those serving the poorest area are at particular risk of closure and face the harshest financial constraints. It is vital that any expansion of the 30-hour entitlement to children on the lowest incomes is accompanied by a funding uplift.
At a minimum, the government should provide additional funding for disadvantaged children, so that any additional hours provided are of a high quality and serve the poorest communities. Doing so has the added benefit of providing settings with an incentive to recruit children from families on low incomes, as well as ensuring settings serving the poorest areas, many of which have been badly hit by the pandemic, remain sustainable into the long term.
A focus on quality
It is important that any expansion to the 30-hour entitlement, and the additional funding going to providers along with it, drives up quality in early education, which is most likely to improve children’s outcomes and school readiness. In order to offer the extended and better-funded 30-hour entitlement, providers should be required to meet certain quality criteria based in evidence.
As well as putting requirements on settings, other actions should also be taken by government to ensure quality of provision in the early years sector. Increased funding is needed to improve pay and conditions for staff, so that settings can attract and retain a well-qualified workforce. Barriers to accessing qualifications at Levels 1 to 3 should also be addressed, to encourage new recruits into the sector. A clear vision for the early years’ workforce, which is designed to deliver high quality provision for children, is the only way to ensure early education can play its full part in closing the attainment gap.
We would not accept the state providing longer school hours for wealthier families, and nor should we accept it in the early years. If we want to transform our school system to make it fairer, it needs to begin with giving every child the foundation to succeed at school in the first place.
Sir Peter Lampl | Founder and Executive Chair of the Sutton Trust
Currently, two-year-olds from the 40% lowest income families are entitled to 15 hours of free early education per week. For three and four-year-olds, there is a universal entitlement for 15 hours (usually across 38 weeks). Since September 2017, the government introduced an entitlement for a further weekly 15 hours (the 30 hour offer) for three- and four-year-olds, which children can usually access if parents are in work for a minimum number of hours (or an equivalent of 16 hours per week at the minimum wage up to £100,000 annual income per parent).
Whilst state-funded provision for two-year-olds is focused on disadvantaged children, the emphasis flips with the 30 hour offer to more socio-economically advantaged working households at three and four. As a result children from low income homes where at least one parent is unemployed have comparatively less entitlement at three and four, even though they stand to benefit from such provision.
On the sector:
The current hourly Government funding rate provided for both the two year old and three and four year old entitlements is insufficient to cover costs of high-quality early education. This means that many providers have suffered financially in recent years, even before the financial impacts of the pandemic. Providers have been forced to subsidise places through their own reserves, by charitable fundraising activities or by charging ‘add on’ costs for lunch and other services in order to compensate. This has had the greatest impact on providers in deprived areas, and the ‘add on’ costs sometimes have a negative impact on affordability for less well-off families.
There’s evidence that this policy of linking the 30 hour entitlement for three and four year olds to parental employment is contributing to a widening of the gap in outcomes in the early years, as those three and four year olds ineligible for the full 30 hour entitlement are potentially missing out on 15 additional hours of quality early education.