Sara Bonetti is Director of Early Years at the Education Policy Institute. In the latest blog in our A Fair Start? series, she outlines how the government can tackle early years inequalities.

The first few years of a child’s life have a significant impact on their development throughout school and into adulthood. Previous research has shown that intensive high-quality early interventions can have a positive impact on both children’s development and society. This evidence indicates that early education has the potential to promote child development, and to reduce the gap in opportunities between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from more affluent families, which emerges very early on in a child’s life.

So far, this potential has not materialised in England. The achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers at age 5, when children are assessed against the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) at the end of reception year, is already around 40% of the entire achievement gap that we see at age 16, when pupils sit their GCSEs. And while government funding in early years entitlements have increased in the last decade, the sizeable gap that exists very early on has not been narrowing.

The big questions of course are why? And what can we do to reverse these trends and give disadvantaged children a fairer start in life? Suggestions are plenty: from more funding to more hours of entitlement to more integrated early years services.

While the saying goes “less is more”, this is often not the case for the early years. The clearest example is the one of the number of hours that should be part of the government funded entitlement.

It is very hard, if not impossible, to establish the optimal number of early education provision the government entitlement should offer. But, given the current entitlements available in England, it is safe to say that there is such a thing as an unfair number.

In December 2020, EPI published a study that looked at the relationship between workforce qualifications in private, voluntary and independent settings, and children’s outcomes as measured by the EYFSP scores. The analysis drew on data spanning over a decade covering over 6 million children. It found that while at a first glance there does not appear to be any association between the presence of a graduate in the classroom and EYFSP scores for children that later on are eligible for free school meals (FSM), this relationship becomes positive when the child also attends for more than 15 hours.

These findings have important implications for the government’s childcare policy, as it suggests that, as the Fair Start Campaign calls for, opening up the offer of 30 hours of funded childcare to the most disadvantaged children (who are currently excluded) could be beneficial. So, are 30 hours of funded early education the perfect number? We don’t know. But we do know that it isn’t fair that, as recent Sutton Trust research found, 70% of the families eligible for the 30 hours entitlement are in the top half of earnings distribution, while just 20% of eligible families are in the bottom third of the income distribution.

We also know that what matters for children’s outcomes is not just increasing the number of free hours of early education provision. The provision needs to be of high quality. The report’s findings are clear: the association between a child attending early years settings and improved outcomes is twice as strong for those children who spend more hours in settings but that was for the case where a graduate was present.

However, there are some instances in which less is more.

One key example relates to the complexity of the early years sector and its funding system. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has identified eight programmes supporting childcare in England, spread across three government departments. More programmes and more funding streams do not equal more support for children but only to more inefficiency. And the sector could certainly do without that.

The funding system is complex to navigate for both providers and parents. For example, it is often difficult to keep up with eligibility requirements. While eligibility for services and funding in school usually needs to be confirmed once or on an annual basis, parents (and therefore providers) need to confirm their details for Tax Free Childcare or 30 hours funded childcare every three months.

In some cases, it is simply difficult for families to understand what they are eligible for. As a consequence, for example, £2.4 billion of Tax-Free Childcare funding has gone underspent since its introduction in 2017. Why? Because few people know it exists and the system is too complex, leading many parents to give up or miss deadlines. A rebrand of its name is not the solution. The government must streamline the funding system and the checking of the eligibility criteria.

Last month, the government published the much-anticipated Levelling Up White Paper –– setting out plans to reduce inequalities and spread opportunity more equally across the UK. The early years are a critical time to tackle inequalities and the need for families to access high-quality early years education was acknowledged in the document. But it was disappointing to see no further reference, or concrete action, to support for the early years sector, children and families.

The pandemic has exposed the inequalities in our society and in access to vital services for young children. If we want to build back better, we need to move beyond a simple question of ‘do we need more or less’. The guiding question for the early years should be ‘how can we make the system fairer?’


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