New childcare policy ‘could widen the attainment gap’ in schools

Increased strain on funding and places could lead to poorer quality provision, report finds

A new policy that will provide working families with 30 hours of free childcare for the under-5s could widen the attainment gap when children start school, a report warns today.

The research from the thinktank CentreForum finds that the policy – being introduced in September 2017 – may mean that children from disadvantaged backgrounds end up with worse, rather than better, access to high-quality early-years education.

Giving working families extra childcare for three- and four-year-olds would create a demand for places which could mean that two-year-olds from poor families who also qualify for free places could be squeezed out of nurseries, the report warns.

Previous experience in providing the 15 free hours that all three- and four-year-olds currently receive shows that underfunding and a lack of places can lead to poor quality provision, it says. To have an impact on attainment upon starting school, early years provision must be of high quality, it adds.

In a foreword to the report, David Laws, the former Lib Dem schools minister who is now CentreForum executive chairman, said: “There is a risk that this policy may widen the attainment gap on entry to school, and cut across initiatives such as the Pupil Premium, which aim to narrow this gap.”

The report adds: “The existing free entitlement does not necessarily offer the level of quality that would be required for the attainment gap to be reduced substantially…

“Extending the entitlement to 30 hours per week for working families is likely to place further strain on quality and access for the most disadvantaged children. This is due to the eligibility criteria for the policy, the capacity of the sector, and the quality of provision which can be offered under the funding rates provided.”

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.

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