This General Election policy briefing, the first in our new series of policy briefings ahead of the upcoming election, examines extensive evidence of the key issues in early education and childcare alongside the policies of the main political parties.

Early years provision has never been higher on the political agenda, but the current focus on its role as childcare is deprioritising its important role in providing high quality education.

The briefing highlights that if there is no change in this focus and approach, the next government risks widening the learning gap between disadvantaged young children and their peers and worsening the quality of education for all young children.

Watch our webinar discussing the early years: General Election 2024: What are the prospects for early years education?.


  • Just 20% of families in the bottom third of the earnings distribution are eligible for the existing offer of 30 hours of early education and childcare for three- and four-year-olds, and all parents in full-time education or training are ineligible. 70% of those who are eligible for the support are from homes in the top half of earners.
  • Just 1 in 5 (or 20%) of families earning less than £20,000 a year will have access to the planned expansion of funded places for one- and two-year-olds in some working families, compared to 80% of those with household incomes over £45,000.
  • In 2023, 1 in 5 early years staff members were unqualified (did not have a relevant GCSE/level 2 qualification), up from 1 in 7 in 2018.
  • Funding given to early years settings to support disadvantaged children in their cohort (the early years pupil premium) is just a quarter of the amount given in pupil premium funding to primary schools for disadvantaged pupils.
  • Despite an increase in the proportion of children in the early years qualifying as disadvantaged (using the same eligibility criteria as free school meals), the proportion of the Early Years National Funding Formula ringfenced for disadvantaged children has remained the same since 2017-18.
  • While there are now around 500 Family Hubs in England,6 over 1,400 Sure Start Children’s centres have closed since 2010.
  • The early years attainment gap had been narrowing, but pre-pandemic this trend reversed, and the gap started to widen. Measured here as the percentage of each group meeting expected early learning goals, the gap between children eligible for free school meals and their peers had decreased from 19 percentage points in 2012/13 to 17 percentage points in 2016/17, but began widening again in 2017/18, standing at just under 20 percentage points in 2022/23.
Recommendations for next government

Recent changes in England’s early years provision have shifted the sector’s focus away from early education and towards childcare. Both roles are crucial, and the next government should prioritise restoring the sector’s role and emphasis on early education.

Equalising access to early education

  • There is a substantial gap in development between the poorest children and their better off peers before they start at school. The early years are crucial to narrowing this gap. However, the existing system in England provides less time in early education and care to the children from low-income families who stand to benefit the most. If an hours-based system is retained long-term, the next government should guarantee a core entitlement of at least 20 hours per week for all children, irrespective of their family’s working status or income level. Priority should be given to providing this for all three- and four-year-olds, followed by two-year-olds.
  • Where provision beyond this core educational entitlement is necessary for childcare purposes, additional hours should be affordable for all families, for example through a sliding scale of fees by income level.
  • The next government could also consider a more substantial re-design of the system, for instance by bringing in a means-tested model for all funded hours. This type of approach could also work well for disadvantaged children and their families, as long as subsidy levels are set appropriately.

A focus on quality

  • Any expansion of places should be staggered, so that providers have time to successfully deliver high-quality additional places.
  • To ensure quality, the next government should put in place an early years workforce strategy, with minimum qualification levels specified (for example, making level 3 a benchmark qualification), alongside adequate funding for settings to offer the higher wages needed to attract qualified staff, and to support training.
  • Having staff with graduate-level qualifications is beneficial for children. The government should introduce specific funding to attract graduates to the sector, for example through a ‘Leadership Quality Fund’, with the most disadvantaged areas prioritised for funding. Additional funding would help to attract qualified staff with enhanced pay and status, with the long-term aspiration of having a qualified teacher in every setting.

Additional funding for disadvantaged children

  • The next government should review the early years pupil premium (EYPP). Improvements to its administration could enhance its impact at very little cost, for example by ensuring prompt payment to providers, as well as making the process easier for parents and less volatile for providers.
  • Government should also look to increase the overall level of the EYPP, to match the level in primary schools. This would allow settings to offer better targeted and individualised support to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and incentivise settings to apply for the funding and recruit eligible children.
  • The additional funding settings receive through the Early Years National Funding Formula allows them to better support disadvantaged children. However, as disadvantage levels have risen, the amount of funding per pupil has fallen. This funding should be re-instated to previous per-pupil levels.

Reinvigorating children’s centres

  • Given the evidence of the benefits of children’s centres, the next government should develop a new national strategy for the reinvigoration of service provision for this age group. Appropriate support should be offered to families with young children, either within an all-age model, as in Family Hubs, or through services specifically for young families through the previous Sure Start model. Any national roll out of this type of programme should prioritise the most disadvantaged areas.
Attend our webinar on the early years

Our expert panel discussed what policymakers have in store for the early years ahead of the General Election in this webinar.