Tackling disadvantage in the early years Contents

Quality early years education

“It is a false economy to invest in early education to a level insufficient to improve child outcomes and reduce inequalities.”

Social Mobility Commission, State of the Nation 2016

10.Children born into different socio-economic backgrounds are likely to have significantly different life chances, and these socio-economic differences take hold early.10 Educational attainment is a significant factor affecting life chances. Disadvantaged children start school behind their peers when they begin school, and that attainment gap widens, unless tackled, as children progress through school, particularly during secondary school.11 In 2016, disadvantaged pupils were on average 19.3 months behind their peers by the time they took their GCSEs. The 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”.12

11.The evidence is clear that early years education for children below the age of four has a positive impact on the life chances of disadvantaged children.13 Disadvantaged children receive particular benefit from attending pre-school, especially when they are learning alongside children from different social backgrounds. The Sutton Trust told us in written evidence that

The attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged counterparts is already evident when children begin school aged 5, with a gap between them 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.14

Yet overall, disadvantaged children spend significantly less time in pre-school than children from more affluent backgrounds.15


12.Not all pre-schools have an equal impact on children’s life chances—quality is key. One key study by the Institute of Education found that the characteristics prevalent in high-quality pre-school settings included highly qualified staff as managers and teachers; parity between educational and social development; warm, interactive relationships between staff and children; and formal teaching provided to children.16 The Government-commissioned review “Foundations for quality: The independent review of early education and childcare qualifications”, led by Professor Cathy Nutbrown (the Nutbrown Review) concluded similarly that

13.The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) wrote that

High quality early education supports a child’s full development, including creativity, curiosity and self-confidence, which is essential not just for school but later life. It has been found to improve children’s cognitive and social development outcomes and narrow the gaps between the most and least disadvantaged children.18

14.Research by academics for the Department of Education found that children who attended high quality pre-school for 2–3 years were almost eight months ahead in their literacy development compared to children who had not attended pre-school.19

15.We also heard about the importance of ensuring low staffing ratios for quality education. While low staffing ratios are expensive, Sara Bonetti, Associate Director of Early Years at the Education Policy Institute, told us that:

The problem is, if we look at, for example, optimal ratios in the classroom, international evidence again is clear about this: that they apply to children zero to five, zero to six. When we look at five-year-olds in England,20 they are way out of that ratio. Even just looking at the structural, simple key point of how many children are in a reception class and what the ratio is, is it one to 30 or one to 15? Do they have a teaching assistant? Include in that children with English as a second language, SEN, or any other issue—and that could just be a bad day, because a five year-old has a wide variation of competencies. [ … ] Again, I would go back to the area of, yes, reception teachers know more about early years, but even the simple ratio and class size is off in England.

16.The quality of early years provision is a particular issue in disadvantaged areas. PACEY, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, wrote that

The quality of early years provision is notably lower in disadvantaged areas, with 18% of settings in the most deprived areas rated less than ‘good’ compared with 8% in the least deprived. Less than half of the poorest four-year-olds in England are ready for school, compared to almost two-thirds of other children. By the end of reception year, there is gap of 18 per cent between the attainment of disadvantaged children and their better-off counterparts, which persists for years. All the evidence suggests that high quality early education would go some way in narrowing this gap.21


17.The clear and consistent message we heard throughout our inquiry was that well-trained and high-quality professionals are the key to providing high quality childcare and early education. PACEY noted that

A number of studies have found quality to be closely associated with qualifications, leading many experts to assert that the key to high quality is upskilling the workforce.

Early Education agreed:

Graduate leadership and higher qualified staff make the greatest difference to outcomes for children, and to the most disadvantaged in particular. The Government’s own longitudinal study is unequivocal (EPPSE). The poorest children have the best outcomes in nurseries led by graduate teachers.22

18.Sara Bonetti argued that while the ultimate goal should be to have every early years professional highly qualified, pragmatism was required. She told us that

We are so far behind from that ideal that we really need to look at funding. [ … ] We do not know much about training providers. We do not want these providers to just be a label. We want it to be high quality. Then we need to look at all different levels of staffing. Level 323 is very important for ratios and is key in every setting, yet we know that training for level 3 professionals has become more and more expensive over the years. We know that many providers are struggling to have trainees going from level 2 to level 3.24

19.Witnesses explained that there was an issue with recruiting high-quality staff in the private and voluntary sector due to graduates not being paid graduate rates. Liz Bayram, PACEY’s Chief Executive, elaborated on the difficulties in attracting staff:

The reason basically is that if you are a level 3 practitioner, to move into a graduate role, first, there are very few of them unless they are in schools and, secondly, you do not get much. I think our research showed there was only about a 10% increase in wages as a result of that. What we are finding is that practitioners are leaving the sector. Graduates who are keen to stay in early years are keen to do so in a school-based environment because they can achieve a better balance of work and salary and all of the things that matter as well. Those that are not are moving out of the sector.25

20.While not all early years specialists want or need to be highly qualified, progression is a key factor in recruiting quality early years specialists. Liz Bayram said:

You will not be surprised to hear that that main barrier for progression for most early years teachers is it is not equivalent to a QTS. They cannot teach in reception classes. They cannot lead nurseries because early years professionals and early years teachers are not the same as a qualified teacher.26

21.When asked about the place for apprenticeships, Liz Bayram said “I believe that what the early years workforce needs is a clear progression route from apprenticeship right through.” We agree. We were told that there is a “raging debate” about how well current apprenticeships in childcare produce quality practitioners.27 Sara Bonetti told us that “the picture is complex”, adding that:

We need to understand what happens at the previous level. We do not know much about the quality of training providers. We also do not have an established system of induction, continuing mentoring and coaching and professional development.28

22.Barriers to progression for early years teachers must be removed in order to encourage the recruitment and retention of a skilled, high-quality early years workforce. We recommend that early years teachers should be able to access Qualified Teacher Status via a specialist route.

23.We agree with witnesses that there is a lack of clarity on progression routes and quality of apprenticeships in childcare. The Government should commission quality research on training provision, induction and coaching for apprenticeships in childcare, as well as professional development for those already in the profession seeking to progress. The Government must act on that research to ensure clear and viable entry routes and development.

24.In the Department for Education’s early years workforce strategy, published in March 2017, the Government said that it would

conduct a feasibility study by March 2018 into developing a programme that specifically seeks to grow the graduate workforce in disadvantaged areas, to narrow the quality gap between settings in disadvantaged and more affluent areas. We will engage the sector in exploring ways to target support where it is most needed.29

However, in a letter to us in July 2018, the Minister of State for Children and Families confirmed that “after careful consideration we have decided not to proceed with the graduate feasibility study”.30 He said that instead, the Government would be investing £20 million in professional development activity focused on disadvantaged areas. He also said that the Government remained committed to ensuring there are routes to graduate level qualifications in the early years sector.

25.We are disappointed that the DfE has chosen not to fulfil its commitment to conducting the early years workforce feasibility study. We urge the Government to recognise the difference that a highly skilled workforce makes to narrowing the quality gap between disadvantaged and more affluent areas. We further urge the Government to justify its failure to conduct the early years workforce feasibility study and to either reconsider its decision not to go ahead with the study or provide a suitable alternative.

26.The Government does not appear to have an early years workforce strategy, encompassing recruitment, quality and retention. We call upon the Government to develop one at the earliest opportunity.

Types of nursery schools

27.Research by the Institute of Education identified that the best early years education in terms of tackling disadvantage is delivered by maintained nursery schools. This is largely because they are better integrated with the community and other family services, and have highly qualified teachers and leadership.31 Maintained nursery schools are likely to have a more than averagely deprived intake; the Department for Education’s operational guidance for maintained nursery schools states that “any involvement in the delivery of the 30 hours entitlement should preserve maintained nursery schools’ overall focus on the most disadvantaged”.32 As of 2015, 64% of maintained nursery schools were in the 30% most deprived areas of England.33

Martenscroft Nursery School & Sure Start Children’s Centre34

In September 2018, we visited Martenscroft Nursery School and Sure Start Children’s Centre in Hulme, Manchester. Martenscroft is a Manchester Local Authority maintained provision led by a Governing Body and Headteacher. It is a fully integrated school and Sure Start Children’s Centre Group with a large multi-disciplinary team and working with a wide range of partner agencies and professionals.

Nursery class provision

  • 60 full time places for children aged 3–5 years
  • Before and after school care and holidays care

Sure Start Children’s Centres services

  • Lead school for early years in Martenscroft, Moss Side, Claremont and St Peter’s, responsible for leading the delivery of all aspects of the Early Years Delivery Model and Sure Start Core purpose
  • Utilises community assets such as community centres, leisure centres, churches, school buildings and cultural venues
  • Works with key community partners including early years providers, early years outreach workers, midwifery, health visitor teams, early help hubs, social workers, schools, voluntary sector, faith groups, childcare providers, speech and language therapy, parenting services, adult education services, job centre plus, troubled families services and housing


  • Flexible childcare families for young children from 4 months to 5 years of age, available 49 weeks a year
  • Currently 48 eligible 2 year olds accessing the 15 hours free entitlement

Martenscroft is a designated national teaching school, working with others to offer continuous professional development to other settings, schools and early years practitioners covering the EYFS. This offers opportunities for sharing effective practice and practice based on research findings developed with partners.

Staff at Martenscroft told us that only 4% of children entered nursery in line or above their age-related expectations in communication and language, but an average of 91% of children made accelerated progress between baseline and end of year assessment across all areas of learning.

28.In January 2018, all but one maintained nursery schools were rated either outstanding or good by Ofsted. These schools must have a headteacher and governing body and must employ at least one qualified teacher. A study by the Nuffield Foundation identified that maintained nursery schools located in disadvantaged areas had been found to offer quality for three and four-year olds that is comparable, and in some cases higher, than schools serving areas of lower levels of deprivation.35 Beatrice Merrick, Chief Executive of Early Education, explained to us what makes maintained nursery schools such a good model:

They are extraordinarily successful at the outcomes they get for those children. They have closed the gap. They are mostly located in the most disadvantaged areas and they close the gap for those children. They may be coming in below age-related expectations and going out above them. They are incredibly successful.36

29.She told us that maintained nursery schools were influential in sharing expertise beyond their own catchment:

They [maintained nursery schools] also act as system leaders spreading their expertise across the rest of their sectors locally. [ … ] They can be very effective not just for the children in their catchment area but for raising the standard of provision across their local area.37

30.Beatrice Merrick also told us that maintained nursery schools are “particularly in danger at the moment because there is not yet a funding settlement in place that guarantees that they can survive”.38 She went on to explain that in part, that is because it is more expensive to pay for qualified teachers and a qualified head teacher than to pay for level 3 staff.

31.In 2017, the Government committed to maintaining funding for maintained nursery schools until 2019–20 through a block of supplementary funding of around £60 million.39 In July 2018, Early Education published research carried out for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Nursery Schools which found that 29% of England’s maintained nursery schools are unsure about their immediate future. 64% of respondents expected to be in deficit by 2020.40 Early Education explained in a briefing document that loss of the £60million supplementary funding would represent a 31% cut in funding.41 A separate survey carried out for the APPG found that 67 per cent of nursery schools believe they will be unsustainable if the transitional funding comes to an end.42

32.One option for finding additional funding which we consider could be used for maintained nurseries was offered by the Centre for Social Justice in their report on childcare. They suggest that reducing the upper eligibility thresholds for tax-free childcare and 30 hours’ free childcare would be a plausible option for providing savings that could be otherwise spent on funding maintained nurseries. The CSJ argues that

The current funding spread for childcare now tilts towards better-off families and funds should be placed where they are most transformative.43

33.The introduction of tax-free childcare and 30 hours of free childcare has tilted public childcare spending towards better-off families; while in 2016 a two-parent family on the national living wage with annual earnings of £19,000 received 6 per cent more in childcare support than a two-parent family earning £100,000 a year, the former now receives 20 per cent less in childcare support than the latter.44

34.Maintained nursery schools (like the one we visited in Manchester) are extremely successful at ensuring excellent outcomes for disadvantaged children. Their success is not limited to their catchment area but can have positive outcomes for provision across the local area. They must be supported to ensure that disadvantaged children are given the best possible start to life. Given their importance we are concerned that funding for maintained nursery schools is set to decrease substantially in 2020 unless the Government commits to additional funding.

35.Maintained nursery schools cannot wait until the Spending Review. Funding decisions regarding staff and places for the next academic year are being made now, and the transitional funding already provided is running out. We recommend that the Government should set out plans for, and commit to, fully funding maintained nursery schools by the end of the financial year.

36.Given the ability of maintained nurseries to spread expertise, we recommend that local authorities should encourage cooperation between maintained nursery schools and nurseries in the private and voluntary sector. We call upon local authorities to broker relationships between maintained nurseries and nurseries in the private and voluntary sector to enable them to “buy in” support, particularly for children with special educational needs and disabilities, or those who require extra support.

30 hours funded childcare

37.The Government’s ‘30 hours of free childcare’ policy, commonly known as the ‘extended entitlement’, amounts to a total of 1,140 hours of free childcare a year. The extended entitlement is only available to those eligible 3 and 4-year olds of qualifying parents or carers. Eligibility is determined by a means-test based on minimum and maximum income level.45 Under the extended entitlement, eligible children of qualifying parents are provided with a further 570 hours of funded childcare, on top of the universal 570 hours a year of Government-funded childcare for all three- and four-year olds.

38.The overwhelming message we heard from our witnesses was a concern that the extended entitlement was widening the gap between disadvantaged children, and those from more advantaged backgrounds.46 The Sutton Trust told us in their written submission that:

While investments in affordability are welcome, neither the tax-free childcare scheme nor the 30-hour entitlement are well-designed to promote social mobility.47

Beatrice Merrick agreed:

Now that we are seeing children who are not eligible for 30 hours having just 15 hours, we are seeing the gap increasing, anecdotally. We will get data on this in due course, but we have to be aware that, if children in working families are getting 30 hours and children in non-working families are getting 15 hours, we will see, probably, an increase in the gap.48

39.Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, referred to the policy as a “car crash”:

One of the perverse, and I think unintended, consequences of policy, you are seeing children who were disadvantaged who are getting more than 15 hours, having it reduced so other children, who are getting support for their 30 hours, have a place. That has to be a problem for all of us in the long run if you are trying to narrow the gap.49

40.It has been reported that the increase in take up of the 30 hours childcare has led to financial pressure on nurseries, because the funding from the Government for places is not sufficient to meet their costs. This pressure puts stress on the availability of places for eligible two-year-olds, who are more likely to be disadvantaged.50 Research from the DfE’s Children’s Services Omnibus Survey found that local authorities are struggling to ensure take up of funded childcare places for disadvantaged two-year-olds, as well as the universal entitlement of 15 hours for three- and four-year-olds.51 Neil Leitch, the Chief Executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said in 2016 that

There is no doubt that the introduction of 30 hours of free childcare for three- and four-year-olds will have an impact on the availability of places for one- and two-year-olds. Two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are already struggling to access places in many areas.52

41.The evidence we heard suggests that the policy is also making it financially difficult for nurseries to take on disadvantaged two year olds, while simultaneously offering more childcare to more affluent parents.53 Sara Bonetti told us that the entitlement has put an “even more serious financial burden” on providers.54 We heard 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.55

42.The Government’s 30 hours funded childcare policy is entrenching inequality rather than closing the gap.

43.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.

11 Education Policy Institute (LIF0050)

13 Early Education, ‘Early Years Literature Review

14 Sutton Trust (LIF0040)

18 Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, Submission to the Education Committee inquiry on life chances

21 Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, Submission to the Education Committee inquiry on life chances

22 Early Education (LIF0006)

23 Early years level 2 qualification is appropriate for assistant nursery nurses, assistant early years practitioner or a childminder. Level 3 (A-level equivalent) is appropriate for learners aiming to become Early Years Educators. People holding a level 3 early years qualification can be counted towards level 3 in the EYFS staff:child ratios if they also hold suitable level 2 literacy and numeracy qualifications.

25 Q9

29 Department for Education, Early years workforce strategy, 3 March 2017

32 Department for Education, Early years entitlements: operational guidance, June 2018

34 http://www.martenscroftnurseryschool.co.uk/; Education Committee visit, 4 September 2018

39 Early Education, All Party Parliamentary Group on Nursery Schools, Nursery and Reception Classes, Briefing on funding for Maintained Nursery Schools, 29 June 2018

40 Early Education, All Party Parliamentary Group on Nursery Schools, Nursery and Reception Classes, Survey of Maintained Nursery Schools’ current and future financial position, July 2018

41 Early Education, All Party Parliamentary Group on Nursery Schools, Nursery and Reception Classes, Briefing on funding for Maintained Nursery Schools, 29 June 2018

42 Nursery World, DfE to assess the value of nursery schools, 19 January 2018

45 House of Commons Library, Childcare: “30 hours” of free childcare—eligibility, access codes and charges (England)

47 Sutton Trust (LIF0040)

Published: 7 February 2019