Report Overview

The introduction of the government’s 30 hours “free childcare” for children of working parents in 2017 was a change of emphasis from previous early education entitlements. The universal 15 hours for 3- and 4-year-olds and the entitlement for the most disadvantaged 2-year-olds were focused on improving children’s development. However, the new 30 hours entitlement is intended to facilitate parental employment and ease the financial burden for working parents. Authored by Nathan Archer and Beatrice Merrick of Early Education, this report considers recent government policy on early childhood education and care in England, and whether the right balance is being achieved between, on the one hand, supporting child development and learning through high quality education provision and, on the other hand, raising parental employment through flexible, affordable childcare.

This report was written prior to the COVID-19 crisis. It accompanies our latest COVID-19 impact brief which examines the effect of the pandemic on the early years sector.

1 in 4

A quarter of providers reported that the number of universal places had declined after the 30 hours policy.


Two in five councils reported difficulties with places for disadvantaged 2-year-olds.


The proportion of graduates and EYTs in PVI settings has dropped from 13% to 5%.

Key Findings

Early Education Provision

• Despite aspirational statements on closing the school readiness gap between disadvantaged children and their peers, efforts to close the gap in outcomes for children aged 5 have stalled and the gap is widening again. Having slowly but steadily decreased from 2007 to 2017, the gap in the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile by 2019 had increased back to 2015 levels.

• Attention during that time has focused on the policy of 30 hours free childcare for eligible working parents. This offer is for 15 hours above the universal entitlement, with only working parents meeting a minimum salary threshold eligible. There are mixed views in the sector as to whether, at current funding levels, this might have a negative impact on the sustainability and quality of provision. Concerns about inequalities have been raised given the most disadvantaged children are likely to qualify for only 15 hours per week early education entitlement, while their more advantaged peers have access to 30 hours.

Under the current funding system, providers may be incentivised to take children entitled to 30 hours free childcare, over those with the universal 15 hours or disadvantaged 2-year-old provision. A quarter of providers in the Private, Voluntary and Independent (PVI) sector reported that the number of universal 15 hours places had declined at their setting after the introduction of the 30 hour entitlement, while 38% of councils reported that the introduction had caused difficulties for delivering places for disadvantaged 2-year-olds. However, the impact differs locally, and has evolved over time.

The Early Years Workforce

The 2017 Early Years Workforce Strategy in England failed to put in place a long-term plan to upskill and invest in the early years workforce. A key commitment to grow the graduate workforce in disadvantaged areas was dropped.

Recent research shows a decline in the proportion of staff qualified to Level 3 (A Level equivalent) or with graduate qualifications. The National Day Nursery Association found that the number of level 3 qualified staff has fallen from 66% in 2017-18 to 52% in 2018-19, the number of graduates and Early Years Teachers (EYT) has fallen from 13% to 5%, and that the number of unqualified staff has risen from 10% to 26% in the same period. Recruitment remains a challenge and the workforce is ageing, with fewer employees upskilling.

Fewer than half of PVI settings employ an EYT or equivalent, with cost the main barrier, while all maintained nurseries and nursery classes in schools have access to a qualified teacher. Registrations on EYT courses have plummeted from 2,300 in 2013-14 to under 400 in 2019-20.

Sustainability, sufficiency, access and affordability

There is widespread concern about the viability of the early years sector, as rising costs have not been met by rises in government funding rates. This is leading to closures, many in disadvantaged areas.

• The 30 hours entitlement has reduced the scope for cross-subsidy from parent-paid fees. This has exacerbated shortfalls between income and costs. This issue is particularly pronounced in disadvantaged areas, where there is less demand for parent-paid hours.

The complexity of the funding system may act as a barrier for parents. Upfront costs can be prohibitive for some parents, particularly as those on benefits can only claim childcare costs in arrears, not up front.

The 30 hours policy also has greater financial benefit for better-off parents, as families on tax credits or Universal Credit were already able to claim up to 85% of childcare costs through the benefit system. For many lower income families the total financial benefit has only increased very slightly, whereas better-off families have seen a doubling of government funded childcare. Three quarters of the funding goes to the richest 50% of workers.


1. Eligibility for 30 hours childcare should be extended to all families of 3-4 year-olds currently eligible for disadvantaged 2-year-old provision, which would include those out of work or on very low incomes. This would provide better continuity for families on lower incomes with children age 2-4, and refocus funding on closing the school readiness gap. This could be funded by reducing eligibility for households with high incomes.

2. This should be accompanied by increased levels of funding for government funded hours to ensure that delivery is viable and quality of early learning provision is paramount. It is estimated that funding levels per hour are currently 20-25% below the cost of delivery.

3. The Early Years Pupil Premium should be reviewed, and consideration given to the rate, eligibility criteria, and minimising barriers to accessing the funding, including the frequency of eligibility changes, with a move to an equivalent of ‘Ever FSM’ to ensure families dipping in and out of poverty are captured.

4. There should be a long-term aspiration to have a qualified teacher in every setting. To do this government should address the recruitment of Early Years Teachers (EYTs) and their parity with teachers holding QTS by: introducing a route for QTS Early Years including access to the new early career framework, bolstering conversion courses available for those already qualified as EYTs who wish to gain QTS, along with taking steps towards parity of pay and conditions for qualified teachers working in the non-maintained sector.

5. One proven way of doing this is through a ‘Leadership Quality Fund’ which can be accessed by settings in order to attract, hire and adequately pay qualified staff, or train existing staff. More needs to be done to increase the qualifications of staff, as well as providing career pathways to attract talent. This is crucial to levelling up provision.

6. Settings, particularly those in deprived areas, should be encouraged and resourced to provide more direct support for parents in terms of the home learning environment. While other supports such as apps are welcome, the relationships and trust established through face-to-face support mean that settings themselves are often best placed to support parents who need it.

7. Maintained nursery schools make up a small proportion of the sector, but are beacons of the highest quality provision, hubs for training and ideas and cater disproportionately to the less advantaged. To recognise this contribution and provide stability, their funding should be set at a sustainable level and put on a long-term basis so they can continue to serve the groups that need support the most.