Report Overview

A child’s early years play a significant role in determining their chances later on in life, including their chances of social mobility. But the poorest children are already 11 months behind their peers when they start at primary school, with efforts to close the gap stalling, and evidence that the gap has started to widen once again in recent years. Quality early years provision, targeted at those who need it most, has the potential to reverse this.

Unfortunately, early years education in England is underfunded, underappreciated and unequal. Access to quality early education is unfair, with most of the country’s poorest families locked out of the government’s flagship entitlement of 30 hours of funded early education and child-care for three- and four-year-olds. In this landmark report, the 30 hours policy is examined from a variety of different angles, with key contributions from experts in the field:

What do we know about the 30-hour entitlement?  – literature review and qualitative stakeholder work 

Authored by Professor Chris Pascal, Professor Tony Bertram and Dr Aline Cole-Albäck from the Centre for Research in Early Childhood

Views on the ground from parents, teachers, and providers

Authored by the Sutton Trust’s Rebecca Montacute and Erica Holt-White

Costing options for extending the 30-hour free entitlement 

Authored by Christine Farquharson, Senior Research Economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies

A shorter summary document is available here.


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The proportion of parents eligible for the 30 hour entitlement who are in the top half of the earnings distribution.


Over half of primary senior leaders think fewer pupils were “school ready” this year.


Most early years settings surveyed would favour extending the current offer to disadvantaged children.

Key findings
  • Currently, all three- and four-year-olds in England are entitled to 15 hours of early education and childcare per week.  Since 2017, ‘working-families’ meeting certain eligibility requirements have been entitled to an additional 15 hours. 70% of those eligible are in the top half of the earnings distribution.  
  • 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. 
  • Schools are already feeling the impacts of the pandemic on school readiness. Over half (54%) of primary senior leaders surveyed here said fewer pupils were “school ready” when they started reception this year than they would usually expectAt schools with the most deprived intakes this was 67%.
  • Parents are concerned about the impacts the pandemic has had on their children. Our survey of pre-schoolers’ parents found 64% have been worried about their child’s development or wellbeing during the pandemic.    
  • Early years providers interviewed said that the complex eligibility criteria for the 30 hours entitlement caused problems for them and for parents. They argued for greater simplicity and more certainty, as employment situations can be volatile and unpredictable, particularly in the context of the pandemic.  
  • Just over half of providers in our survey (52%) said the entitlement was helping families to work much or slightly more, with 26% saying it had no effect. Those working in the most deprived parts of the country were 13 percentage points less likely to say parents were able to work more.
  • Many providers welcomed an expansion to the entitlement if the funding met their costs, and would be able to offer an expanded entitlement quickly, with 39% able to do so immediately, 13% within a month and 28% in 1-3 months.   
  • The IFS’ have modelled the costs of several options for reform. Their central estimates suggest that universalising the entitlement would raise spending by around £250 million in 2024–25, a 9% increase in spending on the 3- and 4-year-old entitlements which would extend eligibility for the 30 hour entitlement to 80% of children in the bottom third of the earnings distribution for the first time. Extending the entitlement to disadvantaged three and four-year-olds would cost an extra £165 million a yearThis is compared to the roughly £735 million that the existing 30-hour entitlement will cost.  
  • The government should provide universal access to the 30 hours entitlement for children aged three and four. A targeted expansion of the 30 hours offer to disadvantaged families would be a cheaper alternative, but has downsides in terms of ease of administration, along with fairness to ‘just about managing’ families.
  • The government should provide additional funding for disadvantaged children, either through the Early Years Pupil Premium or a ‘disadvantage supplement’ for those eligible for the two-year-old offer.
  • The Early Years Pupil Premium should be reformed to make its administration easier and improve its impact, by increasing the rate, and broadening the eligibility period over a greater amount of time to capture families dipping in and out of poverty, as with the Pupil Premium in schools.
  • A universal uplift to funding, such as the one introduced when the 30 hours policy was first rolled out, would have broader benefits to providers, and help to steady the sector in the aftermath of the pandemic.
  • To offer the extended and better-funded 30-hour entitlement, 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.
  • The reinstatement of a ‘Leadership Quality Fund’ would help settings to attract qualified staff with enhanced pay and status, with the long-term aspiration of having a qualified teacher in every setting.