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Child poverty

Expanding childcare without driving up quality leaves disadvantaged children behind

Julian Grenier, Headteacher at Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre, and Director of East London Research School, looks at maximising quality in our early education and childcare system, particularly for people on the lowest incomes.

Written by:
Julian Grenier
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7 minutes

England is a country with high levels of child poverty and a poor track record in promoting educational equality. It’s a country where your success in education is strongly associated with your family’s income.

In this blog, I am going to consider the role that early education and childcare might play in tackling inequality.

For as long as we have been collecting data, children from low-income households have been lagging significantly behind other children by the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) when most are five years old. In 2020, the Education Policy Institute calculated that as a gap that’s equivalent to 4.6 months.

Where we are looking at educational data about such young children, it is tempting to conclude that there is no need for undue worry. Surely there is plenty of time for catching up? However, the data gives us a much starker picture. On average, gaps widen. The 4.6 month gap doubles to over nine months by the end of primary schooling, and doubles again to 18 months by the time young people are taking their GCSEs aged 16.

Finally, it is worth noting that the gap between disadvantaged children (defined, crudely, as those known to be eligible for free school meals) and all others seems to have risen significantly since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ways forward

Research indicates that high-quality early childhood education and care is good for all children, and especially good for disadvantaged children. In this next section, I will be exploring what ‘quality’ might mean and how we might focus on quality and access in order to support the best start in life for all our children.

But before focusing on these ways forward, there are two important points I would like to make.

Firstly, we need to tackle the root causes of inequality, not just deal with some of the symptoms by optimising our education system. 3.9 million children are living in poverty, and a much higher proportion of their families are headed by someone of Bangladeshi, Pakistani or black ethnicity, than white ethnicity (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2023).

As the Marmot Review commented in 2020, ‘less positive experiences early in life, particularly experiences of adversity, relate closely to many negative long-term outcomes: poverty, unemployment, homelessness, unhealthy behaviours and poor mental and physical health’.

We cannot expect early years education and childcare alone to fix problems of this magnitude.

Secondly, whilst the early years are certainly crucial, children have their whole school careers ahead of them once they leave the Early Years Foundation Stage. As Alex Quigley, the Education Endowment Foundation’s National Content and Engagement Manager argues, children are not ‘fixed at five’. The whole school system needs to support children and young people from low-income and minoritized backgrounds.

One further note of caution: we must take care to describe the impact of disadvantage, without inscribing a condescending narrative of low expectations onto children’s lives and opportunities.

On a positive note, there is much sound evidence from high-quality research about how improvements to early years education and childcare can support improved outcomes for disadvantaged children.

We can usefully consider this in two dimensions: structural and process elements.

Structural elements

The Education Policy Institute (2018) describes the ‘iron triangle’ of structural elements as:

  • workforce training and professional development
  • child to staff ratios
  • group / classroom size.

The quality of workforce training in the early years has been causing concern for a long time. It is notable that the recommendations of the 2012 independent Nutbrown Review, commissioned by the Department for Education, have not been implemented. As a member of the review’s Expert Panel, my simple conclusion is that we have wasted the last decade. We could have seen an improved level 3 qualification and achieved the ambition to have more graduates in the early years workforce.

There is good evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that professional development needs to be carefully planned, sustained over time, and provide staff with clear and actionable practices to adopt, supported carefully by leaders and within the team. However, much of the ongoing professional development available for staff in the early years is poor-quality and far too brief in duration to have impact.

When it comes to child / staff ratios, there has been much controversy in recent years, with Government announcing plans in the Budget to relax ratios despite opposition.

Research, most notably the longitudinal EPPSE project, suggests that it’s responsive care and early education that benefits children – where there are enough staff with time to respond to individual needs, to play and to have conversations with the children, for example.

Finally, the EPI notes that the average size of reception classes in England is large, generally 30 children with a teacher and a Level 3 early years educator, whilst ‘international evidence … clearly points to a maximum average size of 20 children per class for this age group’.

The final structural element which is worth focusing on is access. It doesn’t matter how great the quality of an early years setting is, if children aren’t attending it. In England, two-year-olds from low-income backgrounds are entitled to 15 free hours of early education per week. But in the last few years, only 60-70% of eligible children have actually accessed these places.

When it comes to children aged three and four years old, those from low-income backgrounds where their parent or parents are not in work can access 15 hours per week, whereas better-off children with parents in work can access 30 hours per week without charge. This policy has a kind of reverse Robin Hood effect: it gives more resources to the families who are better-off.

Process elements

‘Process elements’ are about the minute-by-minute interactions and running of an early years setting or school. How do staff organise the learning and play environment, how do they care for children and play and chat with them, for example. Just having more graduates in the workforce won’t make a different in itself: it depends on what staff actually do.

Inevitably, it can be hard to disentangle structural and process elements, and the research is also less clear-cut.

Usefully, the EPPSE research summarises the key features of high-quality settings:

  • They view academic and social development as equally important but maintain a strong educational focus.
  • They have strong leadership and long-serving staff who have a good knowledge of the early years curriculum, child development and young children as learners.
  • They provide a good balance of practitioner initiated and freely chosen play activities.
  • They provide adult-child interactions that involve ‘sustained shared thinking’ and open-ended questioning to extend children’s thinking, being mindful of differentiation and children’s individual needs.
  • They have behaviour policies that support children rationalising and talking through areas of conflict.
  • They encourage parental involvement and hold regular discussion with parents about their child’s progress.

A couple of other highlights from research include:

  • A focus on helping children to develop their communication, which the EEF estimates can lead to as much as seven months’ learning gain when implemented well.
  • High-quality synthetic phonics programmes in the reception year, which LSE researchers concluded in 2017 could ‘narrow the gap between disadvantaged pupils and other groups’.

What should we do next?

As I argued earlier, there is a clear need for a holistic approach to tackling child poverty and improving equality in education. Focusing just on early education and childcare, I think there is good evidence to support taking the following actions with respect to the Guidance and the Statutory Requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage:

  • Review the requirements for qualifications, with an ambition that there is at least one graduate in every early years setting.
  • Review class sizes in the reception year, with the ambition of a maximum class size of 20 children.
  • In the EYFS guidance, clearly set out the amount of high-quality, evidence-informed professional development each practitioner should engage in every year. This would require an accreditation scheme and a requirement that practitioners are given time not just to attend professional development, but also time for reflection and implementation.

We also need to change the funding regime for early years, which currently results in the worst of all possible worlds:

Funding needs urgent and radical reform for all those reasons, and also to fund the steps outlined earlier to improve quality. With a stable sector and a twin-focus on improving quality and improving access, we can begin to tackle inequality in the early years. 


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