Poorest children ‘locked out’ of early years services as parents do not earn enough, experts warn

England’s poorest children are being “locked out” of early years services because their parents do not earn enough, experts have warned.

The Government’s policy of 30 hours of funded childcare for working parents is widening inequality between disadvantaged children and their peers, according to evidence in a report.

The report, published by the Sutton Trust today in partnership with the Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust, argues that these are the children who would benefit from support the most.

Two-year-olds from disadvantaged families can receive 15 hours of childcare per week, with all three and four-year-olds also eligible.

But since 2017, the parents of three and four-year-olds who earn at least the equivalent of 16 hours on the national minimum wage per week on average are entitled to a further 15 hours.

Of those eligible for the full 30 hours, 70% are in the top half of earners, and 13% are in the bottom third of the income distribution, the report found.

The report, A Fair Start?, is calling for the full 30-hour entitlement to be extended to those who were eligible for support aged two at a minimum – thought to be just under a quarter of a million children.

But making the offer universal would be preferable as it would simplify the process, encourage take-up of places – which particularly affects disadvantaged families – and make enrolment more straightforward for families with fluctuating circumstances.

It is vital that any expansion is accompanied by sufficient Government funding for providers, the report argues.

Dr Rebecca Montacute, research and policy manager at the Sutton Trust, told the PA news agency: “The Government clearly thinks that these children need additional support, which is why they put it in place when they are two.

“But then the policy focus just completely shifts at three and four, and rather than giving these children more support they actually end up getting less – even though they obviously still get 15 hours all the way through, they’re getting less in comparison to their better-off peers.”

The report cited evidence that the policy is contributing to an increased attainment gap between children when they start school.

Previous research from the Education Policy Institute found that the poorest children are at least nine months behind their peers when they start at primary school.

This attainment gap widened between 2018 and 2019 for the first time in more than a decade, and experts fear it will grow further due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Expanding access to high-quality early years education is likely to close gaps before school starts, and help provide flexibility to parents moving back into employment, retraining, or increasing their hours at work, the report argues.

Dr Montacute added: “This really has an impact potentially all the way through these young people’s lives, but if we act at this point, it tends to be much cheaper and you can close those gaps really early and make it much easier for the school system.”

Making the full 30 hours available to all three and four-year-olds would cost around £250 million a year, according to modelling by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

If sufficient funding was provided, almost 80% of early years settings surveyed for the report would favour extending the offer to disadvantaged children, with 40% supporting making it universal.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “We know how important high-quality early education is for young children, yet the poorest three and four-year-olds are locked out of these opportunities, simply because their parents do not earn enough. This is a national scandal.

“We wouldn’t accept the state providing longer school hours for well-off families, and we shouldn’t accept it in the early years.”

Neil Leitch (pictured), chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “The harsh reality is that for many, any extension of the scheme at current rates of funding is simply unfeasible.

“If the Government is genuinely committed to improving the life chances of all children, then clearly it needs to invest in the sector that is proven to have the biggest impact on long-term learning and development: the early years.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said that every three and four-year-old can receive 15 hours of free childcare, regardless of their circumstances, with 90% taking this up as of January.

She said: “We have put unprecedented investment into childcare over the past decade, spending over £3.5 billion in each of the past three years for our free childcare entitlements – including 15 hours per week for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds.

“Our 30 hours offer supports working parents, including single parents on incomes as low as £7,500 a year, helping them work more flexibly or increase their hours.”

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