This report examines the current state of early years policy in light of the evidence about what works. Reviewing 20 years of policy change, it assesses the strengths and limitations of where we are today, and identifies priority areas and key next steps for policy attention. The report, authored by Dr Kitty Stewart (LSE) and Professor Jane Waldfogel (Columbia), covers three types of early years policy: parental leave and parenting; early education and childcare; and financial support to households with young children. The focus throughout is on narrowing gaps at school starting age between children from different social backgrounds – essential to breaking the cycle of disadvantage and making progress on social mobility.
- The UK has made a great deal of progress over the past 20 years, doubling the period of paid maternity leave and introducing new rights to paid paternity leave and parental leave.
- Progress in parenting policy has been more uneven. While parenting is a major factor contributing to gaps in early child development, research has also highlighted the difficulties of designing and implementing policies to improve parenting or close gaps in parenting and the home environment between low- and high-socio-economic status families. Carefully designed programmes, drawing on the growing evidence base, can play a role in reducing disparities in early childhood, although delivering them effectively at scale remains challenging.
- Early education and childcare has been a major focus of policy in this area. Of concern is that recent developments indicate a shift in funding and policy focus away from quality early education for child development towards childcare affordability for working families. Investments in affordability are welcome, but neither the tax-free childcare scheme nor the 30 hour entitlement for working families are well-designed to promote social mobility, meaning longer hours in state-funded early education for children who are already relatively advantaged, which may be expected to widen gaps in child development at school starting age. Particularly worrying, these investments are coming at the expense of the quality of provision.
- One third of staff working in group-based care still lack either English or Maths GCSE or both. A current proposal to remove the requirement for maintained nursery and reception classes to have a qualified teacher is particularly worrying and could affect children in disadvantaged areas most of all.
- Targeted places for disadvantaged two-year-olds continue, but nearly one-third of eligible two-year-olds still do not take up their place, while many of the available places for two-year-olds are not in the highest quality settings.
- Cash transfers can have a significant impact on household financial resources and therefore on children’s outcomes. From 1997 to 2010 cash transfers for children became much more generous, with children under five the greatest beneficiaries. Since 2010 aspects of this support have been unravelled: notably, additional benefits for babies have been scrapped; the tax credit system has been more narrowly targeted; and a freeze on working-age benefits means a steady erosion in the real value of support.
- Changes to benefits and tax credits are projected to lead to sharp increases in child poverty in the next five years, undoing much of the progress of the early 2000s. It is difficult to see how even well-designed policies to support parenting and ensure access to high quality early education can have their optimal impact against such a backdrop.
- The shift in focus of childcare policy away from quality towards quantity, with less focus on educational development, is ill-advised and should be reversed. Specifically, funding should be secured to ensure that qualified teachers remain in place in school nursery and reception classes, and that local authorities can continue to provide support for continuing professional development. The earlier commitment to having qualified practitioners in every early years setting should be revived as their presence is crucial for the development of disadvantaged toddlers.
- Parental leave policies should be extended to provide enhanced entitlements for fathers and to ensure that low-income and non-standard workers can take full advantage of them. Steps to increase leave-taking by men through measures such as providing some ‘use it or lose it’ leave and providing some leave time at a higher rate of pay – to increase father involvement and promote greater gender equity – should be a priority.
- Parenting policies should build on the research evidence to help parents provide the best possible early start for their children. The government should continue to trial and evaluate promising programmes while also working towards taking the most promising ones to scale.
- Income support for families with children, particularly those with young children, must be provided at an adequate level – so that parents can make necessary investments in their children and so that financial insecurity does not undermine the impact of other investments like parental leave, parenting policies and high quality childcare.
- The government should move towards giving early years teachers Qualified Teacher Status, with the increase in pay, conditions and status this would entail, and should invest in improving qualifications for all practitioners in the sector. A dedicated funding pot, similar to the old Graduate Leader Fund, is important to achieving this.
- Government should consider the potential adverse impact on equality of offering 30 free hours to children in working families, and explore how to avoid the policy inadvertently increasing gaps in development at school starting age.
- Early years policy should be informed by the best available evidence from sources such as the Education Endowment Foundation. The EEF’s Early Years Toolkit can form a valuable source of information on the most effective and cost efficient use of the early years pupil premium.