Government failing to tackle social injustice in early years education, say MPs

The Government has a confused approach to early years education, and measures such as the 30 hours childcare commitment appear to be entrenching disadvantage, say the Education Committee in a report published today.

The Sutton Trust points out 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.

Despite the efforts and Government’s good intentions to improve early years education, the Education Committee’s report finds there is lack of direction in the approach to early years policy. The Committee calls for Government action in three key areas to help tackle the social injustices which currently exist in early years education and childcare.

First, the Government should reform the 30 hours free childcare offer and target provision to early education for disadvantaged children. Second, maintained nursery schools should be fully funded. Third, the Government should develop a comprehensive strategy to join up early years services and build on the success of children’s centres and other provision, such as family hubs.

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, said: “Tackling social injustice is the central objective of the Education Committee. 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.

“Supporting a child in the early years of their life is crucial to tackling social injustice and giving children the best possible chance to succeed. How well young people achieve at school has a massive impact on their life-chances. Sadly, we know that disadvantaged children start school behind their peers and that the gap widens, unless tackled, by the time they get to secondary school. But high-quality early years education, with well-trained professionals, can help to tackle this injustice and help these children climb the ladder of opportunity. It’s vital the Government reform the 30-hour childcare offer to focus it to help the most disadvantaged. The Government should also ensure that maintained nurseries, who often deliver excellent outcomes for disadvantaged kids, get the funding support they need.

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“A strong home learning environment can have a major impact on children’s life chances. The Government 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”.

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

The Committee welcomes the cross-government working group chaired by Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, which is reviewing how to improve the support available to families in the period around childbirth to the age of 2.

Sector Response to the Education Committee Report on early years education

Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said:

“We are pleased the Education Committee recognises the important role maintained nursery schools play in supporting disadvantaged children and backs our call for them to get the funding they need.

“Councils have grave concerns about the future of maintained nurseries if the current funding does not continue beyond 2020. This could have a detrimental impact on disadvantaged children and those with special educational needs, for whom maintained nurseries provide a lifeline of vital support.

“This provision is now under threat unless government commits to an extra year of funding in 2020/21 as part of wider work to find a long-term sustainable funding solution in the Spending Review.

“Good quality early years education is vital in helping children get the best start in life, and despite the good intentions of the 30 hour free childcare scheme, insufficient funding is impacting on the quality of provision and support for children with special needs, as providers struggle to balance budgets.”

Children and Families Minister Nadhim Zahawi said:

“Whilst the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers at age 5 has reduced since 2013, we know that children from disadvantaged backgrounds or those with additional needs can face the greatest barriers in their early development. That is why we are focused on improving children’s early literacy and communication, and why the Education Secretary has committed to halving the proportion who leave Reception year without these key skills.

“By 2020 we will be spending around £6 billion on childcare support – more than any other government – and we plan to spend around £3.5 billion this year on our free early education entitlements. Through this we are increasing access to early education and childcare, and in the first year of the 30 hours free childcare offer alone, more than 340,000 three- and four-year-olds benefitted from a place.

“More broadly, we are investing more than £100 million in projects looking to improve disadvantaged children’s early outcomes, and are building a coalition of organisations – from businesses to voluntary organisations – that will help support parents with their child’s early language development.”

A DfE spokesperson said:

"Through our local government programme, we will identify and spread best practice throughout the country to help to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Last year we saw a welcome increase in the proportion of disadvantaged children who achieved a good level of development.

"Councils are best placed to make decisions about how services are delivered locally based on circumstances. Through our local government programme and £10 million investment to understand what works in the early years, we will identify and spread best practice to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

"Our £100 million in projects targeted at improving the early outcomes for disadvantaged children includes trialing programmes in the north of England to help parents improve their children’s early language and literacy skills at home and more nursery places and high-quality training.

"Children’s centres can play an important role in supporting families, but it’s right local councils decide how to organise and provide services for families in their areas. They are best placed to understand how to meet local needs – whether this is through children’s centre buildings or delivering services in different ways. 

"Maintained nursery schools make a valuable contribution to improving the lives of some of our most disadvantaged children, which is why we are providing local authorities with around £60 million a year up until 2019-2020 to protect maintained nursery schools’ funding. The position beyond this will be determined by the next Spending Review but, owing to uncertainty over the exact date of the Spending Review, we are considering how best to handle transitional arrangements for a number of areas including maintained nursery schools.

"Achieving the ambition to improve early literacy and communication will mean supporting parents to help their child’s early language development, and contributions across society; with businesses, the media, the voluntary sector, and our tech industry all playing their part. The Secretary of State is partnering with organisations such as these to take this work forward.

"The department recently published an independent evaluation of 30 hours which found that three quarters (74%) of parents reported having more money to spend and 80% said the quality of their family life was better compared to before they were taking up 30 hours. 30 hours saves parents using the full entitlement up to £5,000 a year and 30 hours helps a wide range of families. A lone parent only has to earn just over £6,500 a year, and a couple just over £13,000 to be able to access 30 hours of free childcare."

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