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children in nursery
Credit Houghton Community Nursery School; Giggles day nursery

A new report from the Sutton Trust shows that the government’s pledge to provide 30 hours a week of free childcare for all three and four year olds may actually increase the disadvantage suffered by the poorest children.

‘Closing Gaps Early’ ‘examines the current state of early years policy in light of the evidence about what works’ – something you might think the government would have done before embarking on its latest policy.

It finds that the new entitlement to 30 hours of childcare could actually harm social mobility and widen the attainment gap between richer and poorer children at the start of formal schooling.

The report states that:

The increasing focus on quantity of childcare hours provided to support parents in the labour market threatens the quality of nursery education.

This is important. Research shows that disadvantaged children are already 17% less likely to reach school readiness at age five than children from more wealthy families. This gap continues to widen throughout the years at school – Department for Education statistics show that in 2012 (the most recent year for which Department for Education figures appear to be available), 35% of children in receipt of Free School Meals gained five A*-C GCSE grades including English and maths, compared with 62% of other children.

The Sutton Trust’s research suggests that childcare providers, struggling to provide all the free childcare that is required, and with not enough funding coming in from the government, may be forced to make cuts by employing less qualified staff.

This would particularly impact on poorer children, who are more likely to attend state nurseries which are staffed by qualified teachers. In short, in a drive to provide childcare for all, the funding will be spread far too thinly – and it’s the poorest children who are likely to suffer most.

children in nursery
Credit: Sutton Trust

In a further sign of how poorly thought-out this policy is, childcare providers say the scheme is likely to cause chaos and may result in the closure of many nurseries. The Pre-School Learning Alliance surveyed hundreds of providers and found that:

  • 57% thought it would have a negative financial impact on their business;
  • 40% weren’t confident they’d have enough capacity for all the children who required care;
  • 25% thought it could lead to the closure of their business.

In addition, 52% of those surveyed said they would have to increase charges for ‘extras’ such as trips, meals and nappies – again, hitting the poorest the hardest.

In a report by the BBC, one nursery owner said:

“It costs me £7.50 an hour to look after a child in my nursery, but I’m only going to get £4.07 an hour from the government. I already know that I’m going to make a loss.”

So this drive to provide childcare for all appears not to be evidence-based; if that were the case, funding would either be increased or focused on the poorest children. The serious negative impacts on childcare providers appear not to have been considered.

Providing free childcare sounds on the face of it like a great policy; but making policy on the basis of what sounds good and will appeal to voters, rather than on the evidence, is a recipe for disaster.

It’s not hard to suspect that the offer of free childcare is part of the government’s drive to force everyone into work, however menial and poorly paid. It would be tragic if this policy resulted in worse outcomes for the poorest children in our society.

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