Why is the Trust interested in early education?

The first four years of children’s lives play a significant role in determining their chances later in life. This is a crucial period for social mobility, as this is when the gap in outcomes between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers first takes hold. A proven way to close this gap is through access to high quality early education.

Recent government early years’ policies have been contradictory in their focus. State-funded early education provision for two-year-olds is focused on supporting the early development of disadvantaged children. But for three and four-year-olds, the focus is more on providing 30 hours ‘free childcare’ for children of working parents, those who are already relatively more advantaged.

Currently, two-year-olds from the 40% lowest income families are entitled to 15 hours of free early education per week. For three and four-year-olds, there is a universal entitlement for 15 hours (usually across 38 weeks). In September 2017, the Government introduced an entitlement for a further 15 hours per week for three and four-year-olds, the 30 hour offer, which children can usually access if their parents are working a minimum number of hours (equivalent of 16 hours per week at the minimum wage) up to £100,000 annual income per parent.

Thus, whilst state-funded provision for two-year-olds is focused on disadvantaged children, the emphasis flips with the 30 hour offer to more socio-economically advantaged working households at three and four. As a result, children from low income homes where at least one parent is unemployed have comparatively less entitlement at three and four, even though they stand to benefit from such provision.

There is already evidence that this policy of linking the 30 hour entitlement for three and four year olds to parental employment may have led to a widening of the gap in outcomes in the early years, with three and four year olds ineligible for the full 30 hour entitlement missing out on 15 additional hours of quality early education each week. Additionally, there is some evidence that the provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds has been negatively impacted by providers prioritising the 30-hour entitlement. There is an 11 months gap between the lowest income children and their richer classmates by the time they start school.




A Fair Start?

The Sutton Trust was commissioned by the Trust to look in depth at the provision of the funded hours of early education in England and assess the possible options for reform,  prioritising promotion of the importance of high quality early education, and reducing the early years’ attainment gap before it takes hold. Working with the Centre for Research in Early Childhood and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and following months of meetings with key organisations, interviews, surveys and number crunching, the Sutton Trust’s report, A Fair Start? has been published (August 2021). This important and substantial research has received immediate press and media coverage and a very positive response from the education sector and those with a commitment to social mobility.


The report shows that there is a clear case for increasing the number of hours available in early years’ education to disadvantaged children, with a preference for a universal offer, but that doing so must come alongside work to improve quality. To achieve this, additional funding will be needed for the poorest children, to ensure any expansion can deliver improvements in attainment. The report includes full costings for its proposals.


Read the full or summary report here:




A Fair Start? shows that there would be a broad range of benefits if its recommendations were to be introduced, including:

  • Extending access to a more optimal number of hours of provision to poorer children who stand to benefit the most.
  • Giving parents greater confidence in access to care when retraining, moving into work or increasing their hours.
  • Allowing greater stability and predictability for settings, including lowering administrative costs. Providers in the most deprived areas would stand to benefit the most.
  • If accompanied by increased funding, improved quality of educational offer and facilitating improvements to the early years’ workforce.
  • Closing the gap in school readiness, reducing the burden in schools and helping to ensure all children can start their formal education on an even footing with potential long term benefits for social mobility.


Sir Peter Lampl, Founder and Executive Chairman of the Sutton Trust writes in the forward to A Fair Start? :

‘ We would not accept the state providing longer school hours for wealthier families and nor should we accept it in the early years. If we want to transform our school system to make it fairer, it needs to begin with giving every child the foundation to succeed in school in the first place.’

A Fair Start? Campaign

The Trust is now funding the Sutton Trust’s campaign to build up support for the recommendations of A Fair Start?


To join A Fair Start? Campaign use this link:



Website link https://www.suttontrust.com/