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‘Inequality in Early Years Education’ – Sutton Trust Report

The Sutton Trust have issued a report on the current inequalities within early years education and the potential lack of impact and damage to the sector from the new free hours of childcare funded by the government. The report details the shift in policy for early years and the impact of this on the most disadvantaged:

  • Just 20% of families in the bottom third of the earnings distribution are eligible for the existing offer of 30 hours of early education and childcare for three and four-year-olds, and all parents in full-time education or training are ineligible. 70% of those who are eligible for the support are from homes in the top half of earners.
  • Just 1 in 5 (or 20%) of families earning less than £20,000 a year will have access to the planned expansion of funded places for one and two year-olds in some working families, compared to 80% of those with household incomes over £45,000.
  • In 2023, 1 in 5 early years staff members were unqualified (did not have a relevant GCSE/level 2 qualification), up from 1 in 7 in 2018.
  • Funding given to early years settings to support disadvantaged children in their cohort (the early years pupil premium) is just a quarter of the amount given in pupil premium funding to primary schools for disadvantaged pupils. 
  • Despite an increase in the proportion of children in the early years qualifying as disadvantaged (using the same eligibility criteria as free school meals), the proportion of the Early Years National Funding Formula ringfenced for disadvantaged children has remained the same since 2017-18.
  • While there are now around 500 Family Hubs in England, over 1,400 Sure Start Children’s centres have closed since 2010. 
  • The early years attainment gap had been narrowing, but pre-pandemic this trend reversed, and the gap started to widen. Measured here as the percentage of each group meeting expected early learning goals, the gap between children eligible for free school meals and their peers had decreased from 19 percentage points in 2012/13 to 17 percentage points in 2016/17, but began widening again in 2017/18, standing at just under 20 percentage points in 2022/23 (Department for Education data).

During this general election year, the report details recommendations for the next government. One of the areas is that of additional funding for disadvantaged children in early years. They recommend:

  • The next government should review the early years pupil premium (EYPP). Improvements to its administration could enhance its impact at very little cost, for example by ensuring prompt payment to providers, as well as making the process easier for parents and less volatile for providers. 
  • Government should also look to increase the overall level of the EYPP, to match the level in primary schools. This would allow settings to offer better targeted and individualised support to children from disadvantaged backgrounds and incentivise settings to apply for the funding and recruit eligible children.
  • The additional funding settings receive through the Early Years National Funding Formula allows them to better support disadvantaged children. However, as disadvantage levels have risen, the amount of funding per pupil has fallen. This funding should be re-instated to previous per-pupil levels.