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Do poorer children receive lower quality childcare?

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There’s a strange dynamic happening across Britain’s public playgroups and private nurseries.

At first glance, the system actually appears to favour children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are more likely than their affluent peers to be taught by graduate-trained staff, according to a report released earlier this year by LSE researchers.

But the reality is a little more complex.

Kitty Stewart from LSE’s Centre for Analysis Social Exclusion (CASE) and colleague Ludovica Gambaro have spent the past  two years looking at equal access to high quality early education and care in England.

Their project, “The Childcare Puzzle: How can we improve both quality and affordability|?” reveals a complicated patchwork of different regulations, fees and access.

The two-tiered childcare system in the UK, where nursery classes, pre-school playgroups and private nurseries operate alongside each other, gives rise to some anomalies. For example, 80 per cent of three-year-olds from the poorest 10 per cent of areas are taught by qualified teachers, compared to 53 per cent of children from the least poor 10 per cent.

How and why?

The reason, in part, is an historical outcome: in the 1960s nursery classes were attached to primary schools but the scheme was concentrated in poor, inner city neighbourhoods. To this day, the 15-hour weekly free provision for three and four-year-old children by local authorities ensures relatively high access to trained teachers in those same areas.

The presence of a trained teachers or other specialised graduate, such as an Early Years Professional, has been shown to have a crucial impact on the quality of early education provided, says Dr Stewart.

Private providers have traditionally been located in more affluent areas, where they offer full-time care which suits working mothers with higher disposable incomes. Along with voluntary pre-schools, they also offer free 15 hours a week of nursery education funded directly by the government. But the staff working in these centres are usually less qualified and poorly paid.

The outcomes from both sectors are mixed, say the researchers.

Despite poor children having greater access to well-qualified, early childcare providers, the concentration of disadvantaged children in one setting poses challenges.

“Children from disadvantaged families tend to be less stimulated at home and have more behavioural problems, so it’s far more difficult to keep them engaged in a nursery setting,” says Dr Gambaro. “When you have large numbers of disadvantaged children thrown together, these problems are exacerbated”.

“This also appears to be one reason that, despite the presence of qualified teachers, the maintained sector nursery classes – situated predominantly in deprived areas – are less likely to receive a positive rating from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), Dr Gambaro says.

The ideal solution would be a more mixed intake of children from all backgrounds, according to Dr Stewart, but this requires changes to the present funding mechanism and more flexibility with hours.

“The present childcare system perpetuates segregation between children from richer and poorer families. Schools offer free, three-hour sessions five days a week. This is not enough for parents who would like to work. Private nurseries, on the other hand, offer extended care on top of the free hours, but at a cost. It is not viable for them to accept many children for only 15 hours a week,” Dr Stewart says. “In many cases the capacity but not the funding exists.”

The way forward, Dr Stewart and Dr Gambaro argue, is to do two things: invest further in staff qualifications to improve quality across the board, and increase the number of free hours on offer.

“There are insufficient graduate staff in the private sector. Among three-year-olds, almost 40 per cent access the free 15-hour weekly entitlement in a setting where there is no graduate. This marks the UK out from the higher level of quality provided in Norway and France.

“Additional funding is needed to support settings to hire graduate staff, and funding mechanisms could be better designed to encourage and support childcare providers to do this,” says Dr Stewart.

“Second, increasing the available hours of the free entitlement in both school and private and voluntary sector settings would break down the current distinction between provision for children of working and non-working parents. Additional hours could be concentrated on parents who need the provision in order to work, as long as all settings were enabled and encouraged to take part-time children too.”

Additional notes

The UK Government announcement this month that free childcare has been extended to 130,000 more children aged two years and under, whose parents earn less than £16,910 a year. This number will rise to 260,000 toddlers by September 2014.

“The Childcare Puzzle: How can we improve both quality and affordability” was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and carried out in collaboration with Daycare Trust. 

Publications from the CASE project include: “A question of quality: Do children from disadvantaged backgrounds receive lower quality early years education and care in England?”| and “Equal access to high quality early education and care? Evidence from England and lessons from other countries.”|

CASE is a multidisciplinary research centre based at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Its focus is on social disadvantage and the impact of public policy on families and individuals.

Posted September 2013

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