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Opinion20th June 2016

Put disadvantaged children at heart of early years policy – or risk widening the gap at 5

In this blog posting, Ark’s Head of Early Years Development, Jodie Reed, warns that government policy changes designed to help working families could have the unintended consequence of making quality early years education less available to disadvantaged communities.

Over the last 15 years, serious investment in early years provision in England has seen outcomes for children improve substantially – including for disadvantaged children. Yet a large and stubborn gap remains – those eligible for Free School Meals remain 18 percentage points behind their peers, as measured by the proportion achieving a ‘good level of development’ at 5, according to the latest DfE data.

A new report written by Ark (co-authored by me and Baroness Sally Morgan), and published by Education Policy Institute, argues that government policy changes designed to help working families could have the unintended consequence of hindering disadvantaged children’s access to high quality early years education. The report calls for a new policy approach to address the gap at 5 – and to prevent it getting worse.

30 hours and disadvantaged children

From September 2017, families of 3-to-4-year-olds where both parents work will see their free entitlement double from 15 to 30 hours a week. The DfE estimates that at least 42% of families with children in this age group will qualify. This has potential to provide welcome financial relief for many, but the problems for disadvantaged children are likely to be two-fold:

First, there could be a threat to the total supply of provision in disadvantaged areas as private settings and some voluntary settings lose the ability to cross-subsidise through parent-funded hours. Much has been made of the inadequacy of government free entitlement rates in the past. Despite these complaints, the sector has continued to grow. Yet a close look at the markets in disadvantaged areas suggests that, here at least, the threat to viability is real. In contrast to their neighbours serving more affluent communities, providers serving lower income families face greater additional costs, run on tighter margins and are far less likely to be buffered financially or otherwise by being part of a chain. The promised 30p average increase in rates may not be enough to off-set these concerns.

Second, and generally less discussed to date, is the risk that children from the poorest families will be squeezed out of school settings. Disadvantaged children are disproportionately represented in school nursery classes due to historic targeting of maintained provision (63 per cent of 3-year-old children living in the most disadvantaged decile of addresses attend maintained provision, in contrast to 17 per cent who live in the least disadvantaged areas according to the National Audit Office.

However the promise of full occupancy, and financial sustainability, coupled with both the desire and pressure to meet the needs of working families is likely to lead many schools to convert part-time nursery class places to a much smaller number of full-time places. A single classroom is currently able to take in a nursery cohort of 60 (typically 30 children in the morning and 30 in the afternoon) and could go down to serving 30 children only. With only a very small proportion of low-income working families likely to qualify for the new entitlement (as previously reported by Education Policy Institute) [Link: ], this could have serious implications for their universal basic entitlement access.

As Ofsted have previously argued, “most disadvantaged children do best in the structured, graduate-led environment that schools offer.” The intrinsic strengths of a school-led early years offer are discussed further in the paper and include access to a broad community of high-skilled learning professionals, a developmental perspective that makes it easier for staff to plan for progression and identify special needs early and greater scope to manage smooth transition to reception. The idea that disadvantaged children will be less able to access school places is therefore a very serious concern.

A new approach

Our paper makes recommendations under four main headings:

  1. Provide more targeted investment to all types of providers serving disadvantaged children
  2. Encourage schools in disadvantaged areas to form deep partnerships with outside providers to help drive quality
  3. Encourage and empower schools to maintain and extend the reach of their nursery classes
  4. Support strong schools and academy sponsors to deliver flexible, school-linked provision ‘beyond the school gate’.

Whilst the proposed extension of free early years provision is well-intentioned, there are serious risks of unforeseen consequences to those for whom high-quality childcare is most valuable. If policy-makers want to narrow the early years education gap, or prevent it getting bigger, a new policy direction is required. Financial investment will be needed. But more broadly, there is also an opportunity now to build on the intrinsic benefits that schools bring to disadvantaged children and set the framework for a far more school-led and school-linked provision in deprived communities in the future.