England’s early education and childcare system is at a turning point. Both major political parties have shown a significant interest in the early years, with the government recently announcing an expansion of funded provision for some one- and two-year-olds in the 2023 Spring Budget. But what can be done to ensure any changes to England’s early years system are successful, especially for the most disadvantaged children?

In light of the announcement, this report takes a detailed look at the early years systems of 13 different countries around the world. Authored by researchers from RAND Europe, it analyses countries with well-developed and more established systems, as well as those who have made notable improvements in recent years – ranging from Estonia and Sweden to Japan and Australia.

It also examines how the early years system in England compares internationally and considers which aspects of other countries’ early years systems could be beneficial for England.


Invested in New York to triple the rate of four-year olds from low income families attending early education.


The share of early years teachers with a higher education qualification in Estonia

1 in 5

The proportion of lower income families in England eligible for the 30 hour expansion (IFS)

Key Findings

England’s system

Existing provision

  • There is increasing appetite to reform England’s early years system, including the recent government announcement of a large-scale expansion. There is an opportunity to ensure England provides equitable, high-quality provision to all families, particularly as evidence tells us that high-quality early years provision has the potential to improve life chances for children, reducing the attainment gap between lower income children and their better-off peers.
  • England currently has some policies which support equitable, high-quality early education and care, including the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, funded 15 hour places for disadvantaged two-year-olds, and support with childcare costs for working families on Universal Credit (up to 85% of costs, with the maximum amount parents are able to claim going up to £951 a month for one child, or £1,630 for two or more).
  • But there is still considerable room for improvement to ensure England’s early years system works for the poorest children and their families. Many disadvantaged two-year-olds are not enrolled in the existing offer, and many poorer families are locked out of the 30 hour entitlements to early education and care at ages three and four.
  • There are concerns about the quality of provision on offer, with the amount of funding given to providers for the 15 and 30 hour entitlements lower than the cost to settings to provide those hours, with potential impacts on quality. Staff qualification levels in the sector are also falling.

Plans for change

  • The recent government announcement to extend early years entitlements so that ‘working families’ have access to free provision when children are 9-months old are problematic, with figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that only a fifth of families earning less than £20,000 a year will have access to the expansion.
  • There are also concerns that high quality will not be maintained or improved during the planned expansion, with government currently consulting on several suggestions to reduce the qualification levels of the workforce (a factor directly linked to quality).

Early years policy internationally

This report looks at a range of countries, from the ‘usual suspects’ often held up as exemplars in the early years (such as the Nordics), to countries where provision has been improved more recently, or where specific aspects of their early years systems could be beneficial for England. The report also includes cautionary tales, where changes made by countries have resulted in unintended consequences or poor outcomes. Examples include:

  • An expansion of cheap, subsidised childcare places in Quebec, Canada, in the late 1990s, which aimed to provide childcare places to all children aged nought to four at a cost of $5 (about £4 per day). However, research found the expansion reduced the quality of provision with negative outcomes for children in the long-term, including worse health outcomes, lower life satisfaction and higher crime rates later in life. Quebec shows the dangers of expanding early years provision without a focus on quality.
  • Recent efforts made to increase staff qualification levels in Estonia so that the minimum requirement for early years educators, directors and headteachers since 2015 has been a three-year bachelor’s degree. By increasing pay and protecting working conditions alongside this requirement, Estonia has successfully increased the qualification levels of their staff, with the share of early years teachers with higher education up from 20.9% in 1995 to 69% by 2018.
  • A major programme run in New York in the USA, which nearly tripled the rate of four-year-olds from low income families attending early years provision. This was achieved by investing $1.5 billion (just over £1 billion) to recruit and train almost 2,000 new early years educators, alongside an extensive multi-million dollar outreach programme.
Lessons for England

Bringing together lessons from successful early years systems worldwide, key recommendations that would help ensure equal access to high-quality provision in England are listed below:

Children benefit from being in settings with highly qualified staff

  • Pre-service and ongoing training to improve staff qualification levels should be a priority.
  • Financial support and protected time for participation in initial qualifications and ongoing training are needed.
  • England should re-instate the Graduate Leader Fund and consider targeting it to areas with higher levels of disadvantage.
  • Early years staff wages should be increased and made more equitable across setting types.

Having a higher number of staff to children supports better quality provision

  • England should at a minimum maintain and ideally increase the number of staff per child
    in early years settings – other than at age two and under, where given England’s ratio is broadly in line with other countries with high-quality provision, existing staff-to-child ratios should be maintained.

England should remove barriers for disadvantaged families to increase participation.

  • There should be equal access to early years provision for all children, particularly at ages two, three and four – where there is greater existing evidence of educational benefit. At a minimum, the government’s free early year entitlements should be expanded to lower-income families, for example using the same criteria as the current offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds.
  • Ideally, all families would have equal access to early years provision, for example by making the government entitlements universal. Alternatively, a sliding fee scale based on parental income could provide universal access at an affordable funding level for the state, while supporting the most disadvantaged children to access early education and care.
  • England could also consider offering universal, completely free part-time places in disadvantaged areas.
  • More should be done to support disadvantaged families to take up early years entitlements.

Additionally, the early years is not just about formal provision in a pre-school or nursery, but also crucially about the wider support given to families. England should capitalise on the previous work of Sure Start Centres and current Family Hubs to offer combined services (also including health and family support services) – ideally to all families, but at a minimum as universal provision in the most disadvantaged areas.