The Government should delay expanding free nursery provision for disadvantaged two year-olds until it can guarantee that they all have access to good quality places, the Sutton Trust said today.

The Trust has published new research by Britain’s leading early years experts at Oxford University. Sandra Mathers, Kathy Sylva and Naomi Eisenstadt conclude that clear developmental benefits for the poorest children require good quality provision which is not yet available for all 92,000 two year-olds taking up places at the moment.

The Government currently provides free nursery places to the poorest fifth of two year-olds, but has announced that eligibility will extend to the poorest two-fifths of the age group from September 2014. This will increase eligibility from 130,000 to 260,000 children a year.  The Government has set aside £230 million to expand the scheme this year.

However, the Sound Foundations report finds that current levels of quality may not be adequate to deliver this expansion successfully.  It argues for improvements to the qualifications and training of early years workers, and other changes to boost the language and social development of poorer children.

The researchers estimate that more than 20,000 practitioners will need to complete additional qualifications to bring all childcare workers up to the standard required to provide good quality care (A level equivalent).

On current trends many of the early years workers needed to expand provision are likely to be childminders, who tend to be less well qualified than workers in nursery settings. There are currently no legal qualification standards for childminders, and four in ten do not have a childcare qualification equivalent to A-levels.

The researchers also recommend increases in pay to reflect new qualifications and to raise the status of early years workers.

The research draws on international evidence demonstrating the importance of young children having the right environments in which to develop their bodies, brains and their understanding of the world around them during the first three years of life. “During these early years, babies and young children experience phenomenal growth in brain development, and in their understanding of themselves and the world around them,” the researchers say.

The report sees the plan for free early education places for disadvantaged two year olds as “one of the most ambitious government initiatives in recent years, and one which is based on sound research evidence demonstrating the benefits of early years provision for children from less well-off families.”

However, the researchers conclude that much current provision is not yet good enough for the poorest fifth of children, and argue that “delaying the roll-out would enable current good quality provision to focus on catering for the most deprived 20 per cent of two year olds, whilst allowing the time and funding to ensure that sufficient good quality provision is available to meet the needs of the 40 per cent before this is offered as a legal entitlement.”

One option would be to expand to 30 per cent of two year olds (rather than 40 per cent) by 2014, moving to 40 per cent of two year olds by 2015 or 2016 if funds allow, allowing time for improved provision.

Relieving the pressure to find places would also enable the eligibility criteria to be tightened to allow only settings graded as good or outstanding by Ofsted to offer funded places.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “Good quality early years provision is vital to narrow the gaps that leave too many youngsters behind by the time they start school. Getting it right for the poorest two year-olds would make a big difference in improving their chances at school and in later life, and is therefore critical for social mobility.

“However, as our new research shows, it is vital that we get it right. In this tight funding environment the Government should focus the available resources on really good provision for the poorest children rather than spreading the money thinly by expanding the scheme too quickly. The Government’s policy of providing free places for the poorest two year-olds should be a great investment in the future, but only if quality is not sacrificed for the sake of quantity.”

Kathy Sylva, Professor of Educational Psychology at Oxford University, said: “Our report demonstrates how important it is to get early years care right. Research shows that good quality childcare can reduce behavioural problems and increase language skills among disadvantaged toddlers. However there is strong evidence that if the childcare is of poor quality there is no real benefit.  We know that qualifications for childcare workers are important for quality therefore the Government should first invest in raising standards before expanding the number of free places available to two year olds.”
The researchers recommend ten steps that they believe can ensure successful delivery of the provision for two year-olds:

 Delay the expansion of the two year olds early education initiative until the Government can ensure good quality provision for all eligible children.

 Require that all staff working with funded two year olds be qualified to at least Level 3 (A-level standard) and have support from a graduate practitioner.

 Ensure that all practitioners (including childminders) can access qualifications and ongoing professional development which adequately prepares them to meet the needs of disadvantaged two-year-olds and their families.

 Create a workforce development fund to help pay for the training and development for early years workers, including childminders.

 Improve pay to reflect improved qualifications. Average pay for childcare workers in England is £13,330 per annum compared with £19,150 for an equivalent role in Germany.

 Retain an overall ratio of 1:4 for group care settings with two year olds, and 1:3 for childminders.• Work to ensure that there is a good social mix in early years settings so that poorer two year olds mix with other children and improve their social and language skills in the process.

 Ensure settings and their physical environments are appropriate for two year olds with the right resources, space and group sizes.

 Further strengthen the Ofsted inspection system to ensure that it provides a robust test of quality for settings wishing to offer funded places.

 Develop a new framework for quality improvement support.


1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 140 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
2. The report, Sound Foundations, by Sandra Mathers, Naomi Eisenstadt, Professor Kathy Sylva, Dr. Elena Soukakou and Dr. Katharina Ereky-Stevens from Oxford University is based on a literature review of international research on the quality of early childhood education and care for children under three, including a comparison of current policy and practice against the research evidence. The full report is available at
3. Since September 2013, the poorest 20 per cent of two year-olds have been eligible for free early years provision of up to 15 hours a week. This entitlement is already available to all three and four year-olds. From September 2014, the Government has said it will expand that offer to the least advantaged 40 per cent of two year-olds. The latest figures suggest that 92,000 of 130,000 eligible two year-olds have taken up a free place this year.

Media enquiries

If you're a journalist with a question about our work, get in touch with Sam or Rocky on 0204 536 4642. This number is also monitored out of hours.

E: [email protected] T: 020 7802 1660

Keep up to date with the latest news