Government early years policies are 'entrenching disadvantage'

By Joanne Parkes

| 07 February 2019

Reform of the "perverse" 30 hours funded childcare offer is vital, MPs have claimed - after finding the government's early years policies are worsening disadvantage.

The commons Education Committee, chaired by Robert Halfon MP, has found government early years policy is entrenching disadvantage. Picture: Parliament TV

Despite the government's "good intentions", its "confused approach" to early years education is widening the attainment gap between better and worse-off children, claims the commons education committee's report Tackling Disadvantage in the Early Years.

The highly critical report states that the government's life chances strategy was "never published", its social mobility action plan "did not fully address the role played by the early years", and its flagship 30 hours policy "is entrenching disadvantage rather than closing the gap".

The report, which results from the committee's Life chances inquiry, calls for government action in three key areas to help improve the situation - starting with reform of the 30 hours entitlement.

The policy is widely criticised by the sector for prioritising getting parents into work, rather than being grounded in the needs of children.

The report states: "We recommend that the government review its 30 hours childcare policy to address the perverse consequences for disadvantaged children.

"The government should reduce the earnings cap for the 30 hours childcare and use the extra funding to provide early education for disadvantaged children."

The calls to action cover "quality early years education" provision and a "strong home learning environment".

The attainment gap between disadvantaged and more advantaged children is already evident when children begin school aged five, according to social mobility think-tank The Sutton Trust, which gave evidence to the committee.

The trust said the gap between them is the equivalent of 4.3 months of learning. 

This gap more than doubles to 9.5 months at the end of primary school, and then more than doubles again to 19.3 months at the end of secondary school.

In 2016, disadvantaged pupils were on average 19.3 months behind their peers by the time they took their GCSEs.

The trust told MPs: "While investments in affordability are welcome, neither the tax-free childcare scheme nor the 30-hour entitlement are well-designed to promote social mobility."

Another think-tank, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) estimates that "at the current rate of progress, it would take a full 50 years to reach an equitable education system where disadvantaged pupils did not fall behind their peers during formal education to age 16".

Sara Bonetti, associate director of early years at the EPI, told MPs that the entitlement has put an "even more serious financial burden" on providers and that providers are incentivised to take on fewer two-year-olds.

"At the moment, if you are [an early years] setting, and you can either take more children on the 30 hours or more disadvantaged two-year-olds, very often people will look at the funding for the two-year-olds and say: ‘Because the ratios are higher that is more expensive, the funding does not cover it, we will have fewer two-year-olds, we will have more families, we will have more 30-hour children.'

"That is going to work against the mission to improve life chances."

Commenting on the findings, committee chairman, the Conservative MP Robert Halfon, said: "Despite the good intentions and efforts made by the government, there remain significant social injustices in children's life chances in England which early years childcare and education is failing to address."

Secondly, Halfon called for maintained nurseries, which "often deliver excellent outcomes for disadvantaged kids", to be protected with the right funding support.

Thirdly, the government also "needs to come forward with a comprehensive strategy for early years services, including children's centres and family hubs, to give disadvantaged children the best possible start in life".

Liz Bayram, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years' (Pacey) chief executive, said that "things have only got worse" in the six months since the organisation gave evidence.

Bayram said: "The gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is widening."

She added that take-up of the two-year offer for the most disadvantaged two-year-olds has "stagnated".

"We have a growing concern that the downward trend in the qualifications and training of the early years workforce is going to impact on quality of care," continued Bayram.

"New research has reinforced how low-pay and low status leads to far too many talented practitioners leaving the sector.

"It is truly shocking that almost half of the people providing early education to our youngest children rely on in-work benefits to make ends meet."

Bayram said that despite the bleak picture, there is "little progress" from government.

In addition, "some backward steps" were being made, including decisions not to allow early years teachers to teach in maintained schools or to grow the graduate workforce in disadvantaged areas.
 
Pacey also echoed the committee's criticism of government lacking a coherent early years workforce strategy "that meaningfully addresses the challenges of recruitment, quality and retention".

Bayram urged government to work in partnership with the sector to develop this: "As a first step, it could address ongoing funding concerns and rectify the policy barrier that stops early years teachers being recognised as qualified teachers. Their qualification route is the same and they should be able to enjoy the same access to teaching jobs, salaries and CPD as their primary teaching colleagues."

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said that the organisation agreed with many of the findings, including the recommendation to review 30 hours.

However, she said the NDNA is "very disappointed that this report focuses mostly on childcare provision in the maintained sector".

Tanuku added that over a million children receive early education and childcare in private, voluntary and independent (PVI) nurseries which make up 66 per cent of places in England and 95 per cent of which have been judged "good or outstanding" by Ofsted.

The report welcomed a cross-government working group, chaired by Andrea Leadsom MP, which is reviewing how to improve support for families in the period around childbirth to the age of two.

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