The government’s scheme to give working parents 30 hours of free childcare could harm social mobility by widening the gap in school readiness between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers, according to a new report published by the Sutton Trust today. Data analysed in today’s report finds that one third of staff working in group-based care still lack either English or Maths at GCSE, or both, at grade C or above.

Closing Gaps Early, by Dr Kitty Stewart of LSE and Professor Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, examines the current state of early years policy in England in light of evidence about ‘what works’. It finds that the government’s childcare offer is not well-designed to improve social mobility because it is being implemented at the expense of quality early years education for disadvantaged toddlers.

Previous Sutton Trust research found that high-quality early years provision – delivered by qualified professionals – is crucial for boosting the development of the poorest two and three year olds.

However, the new research finds that recent policy developments have put this in jeopardy, axing financial support for graduate training for early years professionals; lifting the requirement for Sure Start centres in disadvantaged areas to offer graduate-led early education; and most recently, by proposing to remove the requirement for nursery and reception classes to have a qualified teacher.

The Trust is concerned that the focus on quantity over quality could put at risk the progress that has been made in closing the gap in school readiness between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers. In 2007, there was a 21.2 percentage point gap but in 2015, this had narrowed to 17.7 percentage points.

The report notes that while targeted places for disadvantaged two-year-olds and the early years pupil premium are important tools for closing the attainment gap, these limited policies are not enough to change the bigger picture, particularly in the context of reduced financial support for parents.

Since 2010, many aspects of financial support for parents have unravelled. Notably, benefits for babies have been scrapped and the tax credit system has been more narrowly targeted. According to the report, the ‘benefits cap’ and the two-child limit have introduced a separation between family needs and the level of benefits received, with devastating consequences for families affected.

The Trust is recommending that the government’s shift in focus of childcare policy away from quality towards quantity is ill-advised and should be reversed unless there is the funding to ensure that quality can be maintained.

The Trust would like to see funding secured to ensure that qualified teachers remain in place in school nursery and reception classes, with support for continuing professional development and greater career opportunities for early years professionals.

The report also calls for parental leave policies to be extended to provide enhanced entitlements for fathers, to increase father involvement and promote greater gender equity.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“Good quality early years provision is vital to narrow the gaps that leave too many youngsters behind by the time they start school. But it’s unlikely that the government’s policy to provide 30 hours of free childcare will provide this.

“It is understandable that the government wants to improve access to childcare for working parents. But this must not be at the expense of good early education for disadvantaged children. It is the quality of provision that matters.

“Focusing on getting it right for the poorest two and three year-olds would make a much bigger difference to social mobility, by improving their chances at school and in later life.”

Dr Kitty Stewart, associate professor of social policy and associate director of the centre for analysis of social exclusion (CASE), said:

“Recent changes to funding for early education look set to have further damaging effects on the quality of provision. The new 30-hour offer is not adequately resourced, meaning money will be spread more thinly.

“To make up some of the funding gap, a new funding formula reallocates resources away from state nurseries disproportionately attended by disadvantaged children, and they may in the future struggle to afford a qualified teacher. To remove this advantage must be expected to have negative effects on social mobility.”

Professor Jane Waldfogel, professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University, said today:

“We are also concerned about the proposed cuts to family benefits – since we know that economic security is critical for children, especially in the early years.”


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 200 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 authors reviewed the last 20 years of early years policy in England, across three areas: Parental leave & parenting policy, early education & childcare, and parental financial support.
  3. Sound Foundations reviewed the research evidence to identify four key dimensions of good quality pedagogy for all children under three. It found that, to deliver high quality pedagogy, practitioners need to be skilled and knowledgeable and to work within environments which support them in their practice.
  4. Jane Waldfogel is a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia School of Social Work and a visiting professor at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics.  Waldfogel received her Ph.D. in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She has written extensively on the impact of public policies on child and family well-being.
  5. Kitty Stewart is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Associate Director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE). She joined LSE in 2001 as a STICERD post-doctoral fellow, having previously worked at the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Florence. She has a PhD in Economics from the European University Institute in Florence.

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