Free pre-school education is disproportionately benefitting children from higher income families who least need a head start, according to new LSE research funded by the Nuffield Foundation.
Researchers found that almost one in five children delays taking up a free place in pre-school education – most of them from low-income families. Around one third of persistently poor children delayed, compared to one sixth of their higher-income peers.
Funding for a free, part-time early education place for every four-year-old in England was established in 1998. A key aim was to close developmental gaps between higher-income and low-income children. It was rolled out to cover all three-year-olds by 2004. In 2008 the entitlement rose from 33 to 38 weeks a year, and in 2010 from 12.5 to 15 hours a week. In 2013, free places were extended to two-year-olds with documented disabilities and/or from low-income families. In 2017, there was an additional expansion to 30 funded hours a week for three and four-year-olds with working parents. The government currently spends £6 billion a year in total on early education and childcare.
Using the National Pupil Database, Tammy Campbell, Ludovica Gambaro and Kitty Stewart from LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE), examined all autumn-born four-year-olds attending in January 2011 and asked whether they started attending when first eligible, in January 2010. A significant proportion, 18.4 per cent, had not done so.
The paper, “Universal” early education: who benefits? Patterns in take-up of the entitlement to free early education among three-year-olds in England is published in the British Educational Research Journal.
It says: “With over £2,000 now allocated annually to each eligible child, these places have become the central initiative aimed at creating a more equitable start for children in England. This is especially true given the squeeze since 2010 on funding for other early childhood initiatives, including Sure Start children’s centres, as well as reductions in cash benefits for families with young children.”
Researchers found that persistently poor children who claim free school meals (FSM) for all three years of early primary school are 13 percentage points less likely to attend for the full five terms of free pre-school education than children from higher-income families who never claim FSM. Children who speak English as an additional language are nearly three times more likely not to take up their full five terms as children who speak English at home. There are also large variations in take-up according to children’s ethnic backgrounds. However, language and ethnicity account for very little of the FSM gap. Children from persistently poor White British households are at least as likely to be non-attenders as non-poor children who speak English as an additional language, while within most ethnic groups, children who will go on to claim FSM are less likely to use their full entitlement than children not eligible for FSM.
The researchers also examined whether the type of pre-school provision available locally makes a difference to take-up. They found that in areas where more children take their places in Sure Start centres, take-up was highest among all children – and the gap between low- and higher-income children much smaller. In areas with most provision in school nurseries, children tend to take up a shorter duration of free pre-school – but the gap in access between low and higher-income families is small. In contrast, areas with most pre-school places provided through the private sector have the largest gap in take-up between low- and higher-income families.
The paper concludes by saying that recent policy shifts are “increasing the extent to which subsidies for early education are concentrated disproportionately on children who least need a head start. The new extension of the free entitlement to 30 hours applies to children of working parents only, while age eligibility will follow the same rules as the 15 hours. Thus an autumn-born child in a higher income working family will benefit from five terms at 30 hours compared to three terms at 15 hours for a summer-born children in a family whose parents are unemployed. Without serious attention to this issue, the universal free places, while hailed as a great success in the prevalent policy discourse, look set to play a part in embedding or widening inequalities, in direct contrast to stated policy aims.”
Author Dr Tammy Campbell commented: “Universally funded pre-school education is not, in fact, being accessed equally by all children. The families who are benefitting most from the policy are those who are already advantaged in many ways – while low-income children miss out. The recent introduction of more free hours for parents earning up to £100,000 per annum is likely to worsen this situation, as well as closures of accessible provision in the state and voluntary sectors, including Sure Start centres. It’s time for a clear and transparent reassessment of the purpose of funding for the pre-school stage – looking properly at which children win under the current system, and at who misses out.”
The research was funded by the Nuffield Foundation which funds research, analysis, and student programmes that advance educational opportunity and social well-being across the United Kingdom.
The paper is available here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/berj.3445