Why is the trust funding this work?
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.
The Sutton Trust is working with The Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust on ‘A Fair Start?’ , looking in depth at the 30 hours policy and assessing 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.
The Sutton Trust will be investigating the feasibility and potential impact of extending eligibility for the 30 hours’ funded early education entitlement for children aged three and four by increasing access to it for more disadvantaged children. Extending this entitlement may have the potential to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children, which would form a vital part of the recovery effort after the pandemic.
Several options for increasing eligibility to the 30-hour offer will be considered, including extending the additional hours at age three and four to families whose income level currently qualify them for the disadvantaged two-year-old entitlement, through to making eligibility for the full 30 hours provision universal for all three- and four-year-olds. It will also be looking at the impact on a child of the number of hours each week in early education and the patterns of when those hours are scheduled, for example in concentrated days or spread over the week.
Very importantly the research will look at the costs of providing high quality early education. The early years’ education sector reports that the current hourly Government funding rate provided for both the two year old and the three and four year old entitlements is insufficient to cover costs. This means that many providers have suffered financially in recent years, even before the financial impacts of the pandemic. Providers have been forced to subsidise places through their own reserves, by fundraising activities or by charging ‘add on’ costs for lunch and other services. This has had the greatest impact on providers in deprived areas, and the ‘add on’ costs sometimes have a negative impact on affordability for less well-off families. Crucially, any policy change must not reduce quality of provision, so gauging the sector’s view on the feasibility of any changes is key.
Views from the sector and other key stakeholders will help to shape this work and find the best solutions for tackling inequality in the early years specifically by detailed research and recommendations on the policies affecting eligibility and funding of early years’ education.