The 2023 Spring Budget included a new package of measures to expand the government’s childcare offering. Our Early Years Lead, Laura Barbour, discusses how the expansion will affect families and children across the country.

It is welcome news that substantial investment in the early years is a headline in the budget, given the early years sector has been notable in its absence in recent years. It is also pleasing to see the ground-breaking acknowledgement of the current gap in funded access to childcare for many parents with children aged from age 9 months to age three. But despite all this, it is hugely disappointing that the changes announced are likely to widen rather than reduce inequality in the early years.  

Inequality of access 

The government’s planned expansion for one and two-year-olds is directly replicating many of the inequalities seen in access to existing provision at three and four. While all three-and-four-year-olds in England are entitled to 15 hours of early education and childcare per term time week, those in ‘working families’ (who meet certain criteria e.g., by working enough hours per week) are able to access a total of 30 hours.   

As the Sutton Trust has raised for almost two years through our A Fair Start? campaign, under existing policy the state is already providing subsidised access to longer hours in early education for better off families. At age three and four, just 20% of children from families in the bottom third of earnings are eligible for the 30 hour entitlement, whereas 70% of parents who are eligible for the 30 hour offer are in the top half of earners. We wouldn’t give better off families longer hours in school, so why are we doing exactly that in the early years?

In 2019, a House of Commons Education Committee report on tackling disadvantage in the early years concluded that limiting the 30 hour offer to children whose parents met the earnings threshold was likely to entrench inequality rather than to close the attainment gap. The committee recommended the government ‘review its 30 hours childcare policy to address the perverse consequences for disadvantaged children’. Authors of our A Fair Start report on the 30 hour policy warned that “There is some evidence that the 30 hour extended entitlement for working families may be contributing to the recent widening in the attainment gap, by doubly advantaging the better-off with additional hours.” Our Equal Hours report found positive benefits for disadvantaged children up to 20 hours per week, with potential benefits for their families if they can access childcare for longer hours.  

But right now many parents who are in work do not earn enough or work enough regular hours to qualify as ‘working parents’, even though longer hours would benefit them. As we heard from one parent, James, whose partner did not work enough hours for them to qualify. Those in training or education are also excluded, as we discovered when talking to Megan and Katie, both trainee nurses, and Michael who is studying pharmacy, all of whom are locked out of the entitlement.  

The Sutton Trust has previously recommended the 30 hour policy is made universal for all three-and-four-year-olds. As well as bringing all families into eligibility, a universal offer would have several other benefits, including a better social mix, a reduction in administration for families, providers and local authorities, all of whom currently have to prove or check eligibility on a termly basis, and improved financial security for settings. There is also less risk of excluding those families on the threshold of eligibility, parents such as Helen and Eva who have found themselves at risk of falling in and out of eligibility when they are between work contracts. 

Instead, the government has expanded the same inequality to one and two-year-olds, leaving most disadvantaged children with limited access to early education for several years before school, which risks further widening of existing school readiness gaps. However, on a more positive note, parents on Universal Credit (UC) will now be able to claim childcare costs upfront when they start work or increase their hours which will smooth transitions. The expanded entitlement to more funded hours and higher UC childcare caps will provide take home increases in line with inflation for low-income parents who work full-time. 

How did we get here?  

Universal access to early childhood education and care was the original feature of the system when it was introduced as 12 hours for all four year olds back in 1998, with further roll out to all three-year-olds in 2004.  It was based on evidence that pre-school attendance enhances all-round development in children.  Children’s needs were at the centre of the policy and this is what can be seen when parents such as Amy describe how her child benefits from attending a setting. 

An additional targeted offer for disadvantaged two year-olds was introduced in 2013 following evidence that disadvantaged children particularly benefit from good quality pre-school experiences.  

The only policy that remains focused on addressing the disadvantage gap, which has been seen to widen since 2017, is the two-year-old entitlement. However, there were alreadyconcerns expressed that providers’ willingness to offer places to funded two-year-olds could be affected by the 30 hours entitlement”. This is likely to be swamped by the new reform  

A focus on quality  

In addition to equality of access, this substantial expansion must be tied to quality and any providers should be required to meet certain evidence-based quality criteria, for example employing a graduate leader in their setting, employing a certain proportion of Level 3 qualified staff, and providing professional development opportunities to their workforce. An expanded early years pupil premium offer would ensure additional funding is targeted at areas of highest need.  

Colleagues delivering in the early years sector are much better placed to make the case for what is needed to ensure the feasibility of any expanded offer, but equality of access needs to go hand in hand with appropriate funding for a high quality offer. 

For this radical new policy extending funding for places from nine months old, to meet the needs of children and their parents – a child’s right to high quality early education with equality of access, particularly for those in greatest need, must be the starting point. 

A better policy 

With announcements in the budget, couples who earn nearly £200,000 between them will be getting 30 free hours of nursery for their children from nine months through to reception, while many of the poorest families will only be eligible for 15 hours from age two. 

Disadvantaged children and their families deserve more. We need to end the inequality in access to early education and care, by making entitlements universal for all children, no matter what their background is.  

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