The Tories’ plans on free childcare will only widen inequality in the UK

Quantity over quality in early years education is damaging to the poorest children.

Offering working parents more free childcare could disadvantage poorer children, according to a new report published today.

The government’s scheme to give working parents 30 hours of free childcare could harm social mobility, research by the Sutton Trust suggests, by widening the gap in school readiness between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.

The Tories’ focus on quantity at the expense of quality in early years education will leave disadvantaged toddlers behind, the charity has warned, adding that previous research has proved that high-quality early years provision is crucial for boosting the development of the poorest two and three year olds.

In recent years the Conservative government has cut financial support for graduate training for early years professionals, lifted the requirement for Sure Start centres in disadvantaged areas to offer graduate-led early education, and, most recently, proposed removing the requirement for nursery and reception classes to have a qualified teacher.

The Trust said it is now seriously concerned that the focus on quantity over quality could put at risk the progress that has been made in closing the gap in school readiness between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers.

Calling the shift in focus on childcare policy ‘ill-advised’, the Trust has called for changes to be reversed unless there is the funding to ensure that quality can be maintained, including through ensuring that qualified teachers remain in place in school nursery and reception classes.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“Good quality early years provision is vital to narrow the gaps that leave too many youngsters behind by the time they start school. But it’s unlikely that the government’s policy to provide 30 hours of free childcare will provide this.

“It is understandable that the government wants to improve access to childcare for working parents. But this must not be at the expense of good early education for disadvantaged children. It is the quality of provision that matters.

He added:

“Focusing on getting it right for the poorest two and three year-olds would make a much bigger difference to social mobility, by improving their chances at school and in later life.”

The National Education Union (NEU) said the big picture highlighted by the report was one of “inadequate funding to support high quality provision, with Government policy likely to further damage quality provision”.

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of NEU – which is the largest education union in the UK – said:

“England has a tradition of high-quality early years education. This report is the latest confirmation that Government policies are destroying it.

“As this report points out, high quality Early Years education that is properly funded and run by a qualified teacher is essential to ensure every child has the best start in life. This aim however is being undermined by Government policy, with funding in the early years being cut in real terms and the requirement for a qualified teacher in every school nursery and reception class removed.”

The way in which nursery education is funded lacks vision, the union said, which is leaving many children without access to essential support and services.

To reduce the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers the Tories’ must focus on quality in early years education, not just quantity.

Charlotte England is a freelance journalist and writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

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