The call from the Early Years Alliance (EYA) comes as 2018/19 early years foundation stage results show marked regional differences in the proportion of children achieving a “good” level of development.
In Richmond-upon-Thames, the area with the highest level of development, 80.6 per cent of children reached this level.
The lowest figure was seen in Middlesbrough where 63.1 per cent of children achieved a “good” level of development.
The EYA also raised concerns about the varying gap between the lowest attaining fifth of children across the UK and their peers. The percentage equality gap has increased to 32.4 per cent from 31.8 per cent last year.
In Richmond-upon-Thames the gap is 22.1 per cent, while in Middlesbrough it is 45.5 per cent.
Other areas with a large attainment gap are mainly around the north of England and the Midlands. The gap in Stoke among the lowest attaining children and their peers is 44.9 per cent, while in Kingston-Upon-Hull the figure is 42.3 per cent.
The average total point score for the lowest achieving fifth of children has fallen slightly, from 23.2 in 2018 to 23, although it is up on 2013’s figure of 21.6.
Percentage of children achieving a good level of development
- Richmond-upon-Thames 80.6
- Isles of Scilly 78.6
- Greenwich 77.9
- Wokingham 77.1
- Hampshire 77.0
- Middlesbrough 63.1
- Liverpool 64.9
- Manchester 65.8
- Halton 66.1
- Leeds 66.4
Ahead of the general election on 12 December, the EYA is calling on all political parties to ensure their early years policies focus on ending regional inequality instead of offering free childcare.
“These figures will make worrying reading for anyone concerned about social mobility,” said EYA chief executive Neil Leitch.
“As far as the early years is concerned the election so far has been dominated by various promises to extend ‘free childcare’ to as many children as possible. Today’s results should leave no one in doubt that the focus of that conversation has been misplaced: for the most part, greater access to funded hours seems to have done nothing for children in more deprived local authorities.”
He added: “If our political leaders are serious about social mobility and ending this postcode lottery, they first need to end the electoral arms race of ‘free childcare’ and start looking seriously how accessible a quality early years education is to the children who need it most.”
This week researchers from the London School of Economics also called for politicians to rethink their early years strategies. Its election brief called for a greater focus on high-quality childcare rather than the number of hours on offer.
Labour has promised £4.5bn to provide full-time funded education to all two- to four-year-olds, while the Liberal Democrats have pledged to provide 35 hours of funded early education for the same age group regardless of income for 48 weeks a year.
The Conservatives are promising to spend £1bn on childcare before and after school and during school holidays.