Education and social mobility experts at the Sutton Trust have today warned of a major deterioration in the education of disadvantaged young children. The Trust says that the role of the early years sector is increasingly moving towards childcare at the expense of providing high quality education, with learning gaps between the most and least well-off young children set to widen in the coming years.

In a new policy briefing published today by the Trust, widespread evidence of mounting pressures in the early years sector is reviewed alongside the policies of the two main parties.

In two months’ time, the government’s expansion of state-funded early years provision will start to be rolled out, but only for children whose parents meet certain work-based criteria*. This means expanded early years education will not be provided to many children from poorer families. This comes as increasing workforce and capacity pressures for providers could see them prioritising places for the children eligible for the most funded hours, and ‘childcare deserts’ are opening up in less affluent areas, placing poorer children at further disadvantage to gain nursery places.

Just 20% of families in the bottom third of the earnings distribution are eligible for the existing 30 hour offer for 3- and 4-year-olds, and all parents in full-time education or training are ineligible. 70% of those who are eligible for the support are from homes in the top half of earners.

Just 20% of families earning less than £20,000 a year will have access to the planned expansion of funded places, compared to 80% of those with household incomes over £45,000.

The Trust says that eligibility for the expanded childcare offer is likely to further widen the early years attainment gap, which has been widening since before the pandemic. Measured as the percentage of each group meeting expected early learning goals, the gap between children eligible for free school meals and their peers increased from 17 percentage points in 2016/17 to 20 percentage points in 2022/23.

The Labour Party has criticised the government for “neglecting the importance of childcare as education that sets children up for school and for life, particularly affecting children from lower-income backgrounds”, but as yet, it has not made any commitments to address this inequality in provision.

In an extensive review of the issues facing the early years sector, which risk not only widening inequality, but also worsening the quality of education for all young children, the Sutton Trust’s briefing highlights that:

  • In 2023, one in five early years staff members were unqualified (did not have a relevant GCSE/level 2 qualification), up from one in seven in 2018.
  • Funding given to early years settings to support disadvantaged children (the Early Years Pupil Premium) is just 25% of the amount given in Pupil Premium funding to primary schools.
  • Other funding ringfenced for disadvantaged children through the National Funding Formula has remained the same since 2017-18, despite growing numbers of children qualifying, meaning this is now spread more thinly.
  • While there are now around 500 Family Hubs in England, over 1,400 Sure Start children’s centres have closed since 2010.

The Sutton Trust concludes that by not taking action, the next government will reinforce disadvantage for children before they even start at school, and risks widening the attainment gap. It is calling on both the main parties to commit to tackling these issues by:

  • Rebalancing entitlements so that all young children (aged 2 – 4) have a core education entitlement of at least 20 hours per week, with extra provision needed for childcare paid by parents on a sliding scale of fees by income level.
  • Developing an early years workforce strategy with minimum qualifications specified, and funding to attract graduates.
  • Reviewing the early years pupil premium to match the level provided to schools and improve how it is administered to providers.
  • Improving the wider support to families with young children by re-invigorating a national children’s centre programme.

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

‘Politicians are failing disadvantaged children. The early years are a crucial stage that can create opportunity or lock in disadvantage. As things stand, government policy treats early years provision as childcare rather than education, and there is no indication as yet that this would change under a Labour government.

‘It’s disgraceful that the very children who would benefit most from early years education are being increasingly excluded from it. We need to rebalance government funding or we will continue to see poorer children falling further behind.’


  • *To qualify for the expanded state-funded hours, both parents need to earn on average the equivalent of 16 hours on the national minimum wage per week, and no more than £100,000 per year. A family with an annual household income of £199,999 would be eligible if each parent earns just under £100,000. For more detail, including on single parents/parents on parental leave etc see page 5 of the full briefing.
  • The Sutton Trust’s General Election briefing Inequalities in early years education reviews a wide range of published evidence from the Sutton Trust itself and from other organisations. References for findings and statistics quoted here can be found in the full briefing.

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