Every year in November, the children’s charity Children in Need has an appeal night where they run an evening full of entertainment, with celebrities usually making fools of themselves to help raise money. The charity’s vision is for every child in the UK to have a safe, happy and secure childhood, and the chance to reach their potential.
Children’s rights are the basic liberties children need to thrive – the right to an adequate standard of living, to an education, to be cared for and to play. Children’s rights should act as a safety net, meaning children always receive minimum standards of treatment whatever the changing economic climate.
Over the last 15 years, serious investment in early years provision in England has seen outcomes for children improve substantially – including for disadvantaged children. Yet, a large and stubborn gap remains; those eligible for free school meals remain 18 percentage points behind their peers, as measured by the proportion achieving a ‘good level of development’ at aged five.
From September 2016, families of 3- to 4-years-olds where both parents work have seen their free entitlement double from 15 to 30 hours a week. The DfE estimates that at least 42 percent of families with children in this age group will qualify. This has potential to provide welcomed financial relief for many, but the problems for disadvantaged children are likely to continue.
Firstly, there could be a threat to the total supply of provisions in disadvantaged areas as private settings and some voluntary settings lose the ability to cross-subsidise through parent-funded hours. Much noise has been made of inadequacy or government free entitlement rates in the past. Despite these complaints, the sector has continued to grow. Providers serving lower income families face greater additional costs, run on tighter margins and are far less likely to be buffered financially.
Secondly, there is a big risk that children from the poorest families could actually be squeezed out of school settings. Disadvantaged children are disproportionately represented in school nursery classes due to historic targeting of maintained provisions, with 63 percent of 3-year-old children living in the most disadvantaged decile of addresses attending maintained provisions, in contrast to 17 percent who live in the least disadvantaged areas.
The promise of full occupancy, and financial sustainability, coupled with both the desire and pressure to meet the needs of working families, is likely to lead to many schools converting to part-time nursery class places to a much smaller number of full-time places. A single classroom is currently able to take in a nursery cohort of 60 children (30 in the morning and 30 in the afternoon), and could go down to serving 30 children only.
As reported by the Education Policy Institute, only a very small proportion of low-income working families are likely to qualify for the new entitlement – having serious implications for their universal basic entitlement access.
While the extension of free early years provision is well-intentioned, there are some serious risks of unforeseen consequences to those for whom high-quality childcare is most valuable. If policy-makers want to narrow the early years education gap, or prevent it getting bigger, a new policy direction is needed alongside some substantial financial investment.
Chief Executive of the charity 4Children, Imelda Redmond, said: “The attainment gap between children in disadvantaged areas and their peers remains worryingly wide. We know that as children progress through primary school into secondary it is very difficult to close that gap.
“If we are serious about tackling social mobility we must, as a sector, work together to ensure that children leave the foundation years to start Year 1 with the very best of experiences and having achieved ‘a good level of development’.”
In a debate, earlier this month, Parliament recognised that the early years provision must be central to any approach on social mobility. But, if we want to ensure that children aren’t left behind, and if we are serious about closing the all-important gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent counter-parts, then the government must make sure that all children have the opportunity to start school on the best footing.
 National Audit Office (2016) ‘Entitlement to free early education and childcare’, p.41 <https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Entitlement-to-free-early-education-and-childcare.pdf> [Accessed: 14 November 2016]
 Education Policy Institute (2016) ‘Widening the gap? The impact of the 30-hour entitlement on early years education and childcare’, para. 5 <http://epi.org.uk/report/impact-30-hour-entitlement-childcare/> [Accessed: 14 November 2016]
 Richard Howard (2015) ‘Disadvantaged two-year-olds missing out on free early years education’, para.8 <http://www.daynurseries.co.uk/news/article.cfm/id/1569924/ofsted-and-early-years-sector> [Accessed: 15 November 2016]