For the next guest blog in our A Fair Start? series, we hear from Katie Oliver, the Director of Ark Start. She argues that more funding for disadvantaged children is absolutely vital.

The research is clear: disadvantage starts early. The period from zero to five is a critical phase in a child’s life and few disagree that the right interventions with children and families can pay long term dividends. Yet early education continues to be regarded by too many as simply babysitting – resulting in underfunded provision and policy that is skewed towards supporting better-off families.

As we emerge from the pandemic and start to think about our national recovery, this has to change. The Sutton Trust’s research shows that over half of primary senior leaders think fewer pupils were ‘school ready’ this year. A growing body of research from the UK and internationally shows that high quality early education can change that. That is the reason we decided to extend and broaden our work in early years, launching our fledgling nursery programme, Ark Start, last year. Ark Start aims to deliver high quality, flexible and affordable early education for under 5s that ensures that every child has access to an excellent early education and starts school ready to thrive.

We opened our first two nurseries in South London last year and now serve 75 families. Our approach is not new – it’s based on the abundance of evidence about what works in early education: well trained, highly qualified staff who receive ongoing professional development; a playful curriculum and a pedagogy informed by child development; and a close working relationship with families which we achieve through home visits, positive parenting programmes and stay and plays. This sort of provision costs money, and so is too often not available for the families that need it most.

We support the Sutton Trust’s Fair Start campaign to extend the 30 hours entitlement to all children – it simply isn’t fair that 70% of the families eligible for the 30 hours entitlement are in the top half of earnings distribution. But we would go further. Reducing inequality in early years would also require the Early Years Pupil Premium to be set at the same level as for primary age children. The pupil premium is designed to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children, in recognition of the challenges some of these children face in reaching their potential. Yet it is currently set at £302 per year in early years settings compared to £1345 in primary age children. Similarly, all children in primary schools up to the age of 7 (regardless of their family income) are entitled to free school meals – a policy designed to improve educational attainment; ensure children have access to at least one healthy meal a day; and help families with the cost of living. And yet this policy does not extend to early years settings even for the most disadvantaged children, where the impact of these policy aims would be arguably even more significant. In a period of increasing food poverty, often impacting families with very young children the hardest, it is hard to understand why disadvantaged children in nurseries do not receive this basic benefit.

Lastly, we would like to see provision for disadvantaged two year olds extended and better funded. We know that providing these two year olds with high quality early education can make a real difference; and we know that the cost of delivery is significantly more than the funding available – an average of £5.56 per hour compared to estimates of £7.22 per hour [1]. We also know that poor take up means that the Department for Education has made savings against this budget line since its introduction in 2014/15 and estimate that increasing the current funding to the amount equal to the initial expected investment would result in funding increasing to £7.05 / hour.

Anyone with young children will know instinctively how important those first few years are for children and parents. Government has accepted the principle of supporting families during this time with, among other things, the two year old entitlement and the 30 funded hours policy. Yet the practical policy and funding is not having the impact we want: the UK has the third highest childcare costs in the OECD and disadvantaged children are 11 months behind their peers before they start school. The pandemic has starkly exposed the inequalities in our society, and in our education system – It’s time to make profound changes in the way we educate our youngest children and invest properly in this crucial period of their lives.

[1] In 2019, according to Ceeda’s Annual Report https://www.aboutearlyyears.co.uk/media/1445/aboutey-annual-report-2019_general_release_issue_1.pdf

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