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 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.