Iram Siraj OBE is a Professor of Child Development & Education and Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, University of Oxford. She sets out why the 30-hour childcare entitlement needs to be extended to 3- and 4-year-old children in the latest blog in our A Fair Start? series.

I have specialised in research which investigates disadvantage and helps inform policies designed to give all children and families a fairer start. A focus of my research has been the impact of early education and I was one of the co-leaders of the major DCSF 17-year study on Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3-16, 1997-2015).

Excluding 3-4 year old children in England of non-working parents from the full 30 hour entitlement is an erroneous and unjust policy. Policy makers often cite our EPPSE research as justification, as having found that there was not a significant difference in short term educational benefits between part time (PT) 15 hours and full time (FT) 30 hours attendance and so they reason the 30-hour policy is simply 15 extra hours of childcare only accessible for parents who work.

As one of the authors, I can say with authority that the EPPSE report does not find that disadvantaged children do not benefit from additional hours. The study, records effects on the whole group, not individual effects or effects on different sub groups, such as by family income, parental education or other markers of disadvantage.  The DfE did not ask EPPSE researchers to test differences in effects of 30 hours versus 15 hours provision for different groups of children.

I am aware that there is less research which looks at the impact of additional hours. Such evidence is hard to obtain because there are so many variables which need to be accounted for. However, such evidence as there, is does support the common sense analysis that more hours for the most disadvantaged give more benefits.

By way of example I refer to two American studies; One found that the impact of full- versus half-day assignment on students’ literacy skills at the end of the kindergarten year, generating the first evidence based on random assignment of children to kindergarten type showed that a full-day assignment has a substantial, positive effect (0.31 standard deviations) when comparing students across treatment conditions within the same school.[1] The second report found that  full-day preschool participants had higher scores than part-day peers on socioemotional development, language, mathematics and physical health.[2]

The EPPSE study – sample size 3500, has proved to be culture shifting research and we are delighted that it’s value continues to be recognised, but there are also, larger, more recent data sets; The Millennium cohort study (a birth cohort study of 18,000 children) and the current SEED study (8000 children). These should be analysed to enable the DfE to reconsider whether FT versus PT childcare has differential benefits for some groups of children, particularly disadvantaged.

The EPPSE researchers were asked to test and did find higher quality of education benefitted those with poorer home learning environments (HLE).

Put simply, where the early HLE is compromised, the advantage of more hours of early education outside the home is enhanced.  The EPPSE study showed that the early HLE continued to have an impact on children’s educational achievement and development and is stronger than the impact of any of the measures of preschool education.

There are many reasons why parents may struggle to provide a high quality HLE and it is often these parents who don’t work and are ineligible for the 30 hours. They may have care responsibilities for disabled members of the family and will be working long hard hours without pay and limited respite. They may struggle with mental health or be coping with domestic violence, all of which lead to exhaustion which makes it  be harder to provide the stimulation that young children need to learn in the widest sense and to develop language and pre reading skills. These are often poorer and more disadvantaged families.

From my own research and my understanding of the evidence about early years education, I believe that limiting access to the full 30 hours, risks depriving children most in need of an educational opportunity and increasing the physical and emotional burden on the family. This in turn may impact on the HLE in a vicious circle. Extending the entitlement to all three and four-year olds would be an effective early years policy that is not only ‘about’ children but their parents and will strengthen intergenerational support.

There is, a professional consensus that the extension of free early education is positive for children, parents and social mobility. There is a consensus that intergenerational interventions, that is, policies which help both the parents and the children, are the most effective.

But there is also a professional consensus that the eligibility requirements are restricting access to additional pre-school hours for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, in a way that is unfair, irrational, and ignores the best evidence about where and how good quality early education and childcare can make the most difference. Instead the eligibility criteria ensure that disadvantage for children in the poorest families becomes even more entrenched, and the gap between disadvantaged children and other children becomes wider. It’s simply entrenching an unfair start.

Iram Siraj OBE is a Professor of Child Development & Education and Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, University of Oxford.

[1] Experimental Evidence on Early Intervention: The Impact of Full-day Kindergarten Chloe R. Gibbs∗ September 2014 Association of a Full-Day vs Part-Day Preschool Intervention With School Readiness, Attendance

[2] Association of a Full-Day vs Part-Day Preschool Intervention With School Readiness, Attendance Parent Involvement Arthur J. Reynolds, PhD; Brandt A. Richardson, BA; Momoko Hayakawa, PhD; Erin M. Lease, MA; Mallory WarnerRichter, MPP; Michelle M. Englund, PhD; Suh-Ruu Ou, PhD; Molly Sullivan, MPP

The opinions of guest authors in our A Fair Start? series do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Sutton Trust.

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Ruby. If it's out of office hours, you can call or text 07834 461299.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news