We reflect on our visit to the Thomas Coram Centre with Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson MP.

The early years of a child’s life plays an enormous role in setting their future life chances. Giving all children access to high-quality education can help to close gaps and put children on a level playing field for their schooling and beyond. But access to childcare and early education is currently unequal, with the government’s flagship 30 hours policy excluding many of the country’s poorest families.

In England, all three-and-four-year-olds are entitled to 15 hours of early education and childcare per week, but children in ‘working families’ are able to access an additional 15 hours on top. Many families on the lowest or no incomes – the very children who would benefit most from more time in early education – are not able to access these additional hours.

At the Sutton Trust, we are calling for 30 hours of free childcare to be made available to all children, regardless of their background. Through our A Fair Start campaign, we have published research exploring the options for childcare reform, and we have been sharing the stories of those impacted by the 30 hours policy.

Last week, we were lucky enough to visit the Thomas Coram Centre in Camden, a maintained nursery school that benefits from a council-run scheme to give extended free nursery hours to children. The Camden Enhanced Offer means that many families who would usually only be eligible for 15 hours can access an additional free 15 hours.

Perina Holness, Thomas Coram’s head teacher, spoke passionately about the difference the extra hours make to children and their families. From learning to sit down and eat a nourishing meal to developing communication and language skills, these children benefit from quality provision that impacts their trajectory far into the future.

We were delighted to be joined on the visit by the Shadow Education Secretary and MP for Houghton and Sunderland, Bridget Philipson, along with representatives from Camden Council. Bridget met with three mothers who have benefitted from the enhanced offer. She heard from the parents about how the extra hours make a difference not only to their children’s wellbeing and development, but also in allowing them to dedicate time to work, study or other caring responsibilities.

Chloe (right) and daughter Ava meeting Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson (left).

Chloe, a student, told us how the additional hours mean that she can dedicate the time she needs to her degree in criminology and psychology. At the same time, her daughter Ava has blossomed at nursery; learning how to write her name, making friends and developing skills that will put her on par with her peers when she heads to school in September.

Single mum Steph explained that finding a job with just 15 hours of childcare was a near-impossible task. The additional hours for her son William meant she could start an apprenticeship, and she’s now working in an admin role at a charity alongside studying for a business admin qualification. Steph feels great pride in being able to provide for her son and has seen how William has progressed in his learning since starting at the nursery.

For mum Doren, the enhanced offer means her son can get the tailored support he needs with his special educational needs. With stability, routine and access to staff with the skills and experience to help, she felt the extra hours have transformed his development both in nursery and at home.

Seeing the extra hours in action in Camden has reaffirmed our commitment to ensuring that all children have access to 30 hours of childcare and early education. We wouldn’t accept the state providing longer hours in school for better-off families, and we shouldn’t accept it in the early years. It’s not just a matter of educational equality, either – at a time where the cost-of-living crisis is making day-to-day life even more difficult for families, a universal entitlement of 30 hours across the board would help many families struggling with costs up and down the country.

Despite the current political uncertainty, what matters most is that we invest in the future for all children, no matter their background. Because investment now means a brighter future for every child.

Ruby Nightingale is the Senior Communications and Public Affairs Manager at the Sutton Trust.

We’d like to thank Bridget and the representatives from Camden Council for joining us on this visit, along with all of the parliamentarians who have engaged with the campaign so far, including Steve Brine MP and Stella Creasy MP.

Visit our ‘A Fair Start’ campaign page, featuring information on our work to reform childcare policy; case studies from families impacted by the policy; and a template letter to write to your local MP.

If you’re a local authority running a similar scheme to the Camden Enhanced offer, we’d love to hear more. Please get in touch via our contact form.

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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 461 299.

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