Why we must invest in a better start for disadvantaged children

Laura Barbour
Thursday, July 1, 2021

Babies and toddlers may have gone unnoticed, but alongside older children, they have also experienced the negative impact of the pandemic.

And as in so many areas, the crisis has hit the poorest families the hardest, as well as causing substantial economic difficulties for a sector already struggling financially.

With the focus on education recovery centring around schools, the early years sector has been largely ignored in the government’s recovery plan. However, we know that giving disadvantaged children a great education as early as possible is vital for social mobility. Before the pandemic, the poorest children were already 11 months behind their better-off peers when they started at primary school, a gap which the pandemic is likely to have widened, but which could be reversed with high-quality early years support.

So how could provision for disadvantaged children be improved as we come out of the crisis? Pre-pandemic in England, the government’s early years policies have been contradictory in their focus. While state-funded early education free entitlements for two-year-olds are focused on supporting the early development of disadvantaged children, for three and four-year-olds, this focus is reversed. The government has instead prioritised providing 30 hours ‘free childcare’ for children of working parents, those who are already relatively more advantaged, a policy which excludes those from the poorest homes.

Extending the 30-hour policy to disadvantaged 3 and 4 year olds, for example by making it universal (as is now being done in Scotland), could help to level the playing field for the poorest children as we come out of the crisis. But doing so should not mean compromising on quality. Given so many providers are already struggling to meet costs for the existing 30 hour entitlement at current funding levels, any extension would also need to be accompanied by additional funding.

As part of a recovery plan post pandemic, we would also like to see the Early Years Pupil Premium increased to the same rates as the premium in primary schools as part of a new funding settlement, to ensure small early years settings and those in less affluent areas can survive and deliver high quality provision.

If we can invest significantly in the early years, it will make a world of difference to children that need it. And we can also help change the perception of the sector away from a childcare provider, to a place where children are set up for the best start in life.

Our new campaign, A Fair Start?, will look in depth at the 30 hours policy and assess the possible options for reform, prioritising access to high-quality early education for disadvantaged children, to reduce the early years attainment gap before it takes hold. How can provision be extended to the children who need it most, and what are the costs, benefits and challenges of reform?

We are keen to hear from a wide range of voices as we develop this work. If you have ideas on how best to reform the policy, or you would like to support the campaign, please get in touch with the Sutton Trust at www.suttontrust.com/contact-us/

Laura Barbour is Early Years Lead at the Sutton Trust

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