Charity warns of widening inequality in early years education

The early years sector is increasingly moving towards childcare at the expense of providing high quality education, with learning gaps between the most and least well-off young children set to widen in the coming years, the Sutton Trust has warned.

In two months, the government’s expansion of state-funded early years provision will start to be rolled out, but only for children whose parents meet certain work-based criteria. This means expanded early years education will not be provided to many children from poorer families.

toddler playing plastic boat on mattress

This comes as increasing workforce and capacity pressures for providers could see them prioritising places for the children eligible for the most funded hours, with ‘childcare deserts’ opening up in less affluent areas, placing poorer children at further disadvantage to gain nursery places.

Just 20% of families earning less than £20,000 a year will have access to the planned expansion of funded places, compared to 80% of those with household incomes over £45,000.

The Sutton Trust said that eligibility for the expanded childcare offer is likely to further widen the early years attainment gap, which has been widening since before the pandemic. Measured as the percentage of each group meeting expected early learning goals, the gap between children eligible for free school meals and their peers increased from 17% points in 2016/17 to 20% points in 2022/23.

In an extensive review of the issues facing the early years sector, the Sutton Trust highlighted that:

  • In 2023, one in five early years staff members was unqualified, up from one in seven in 2018
  • Funding given to early years settings to support disadvantaged children (the Early Years Pupil Premium) is just 25 percent of the amount given in Pupil Premium funding to primary schools
  • Other funding ringfenced for disadvantaged children through the National Funding Formula has remained the same since 2017/18, despite growing numbers of children qualifying, meaning this is now spread more thinly
  • While there are now around 500 Family Hubs in England, over 1,400 Sure Start children’s centres have closed since 2010

Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, said: ‘Politicians are failing disadvantaged children. The early years are a crucial stage that can create opportunity or lock in disadvantage. As things stand, government policy treats early years provision as childcare rather than education, and there is no indication as yet that this would change under a Labour government.

‘It’s disgraceful that the very children who would benefit most from early years education are being increasingly excluded from it. We need to rebalance government funding or we will continue to see poorer children falling further.’

Image: Soraya Irving

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