The United Kingdom (UK) Government’s plans to provide 30 hours of “free childcare” in England “not only risk exacerbating inequalities, but also worsening the quality of education for all young children,” according to a recent policy briefing entitled ‘Inequality in Early Years Education’, published by the Sutton Trust.
The 30 hours of free childcare scheme
In his Spring Budget 2023, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt MP, announced that some working parents or carers of children over the age of nine months will be entitled to 30 hours of free childcare. Eligibility for the 30 hours entitlement is determined by a means-test based on minimum and maximum earning. This measure will come into effect in April 2024, with a gradual roll-out until September 2025.
This new policy shows a change of emphasis from Early Years education to childcare, as currently, all three and four year olds are entitled to 15 hours of Early Years provision, with children from lower income families eligible from the age of two.
Loss of focus on early education
The Sutton Trust believes that the UK government is treating the Early Years sector “primarily as childcare, with much less focus on its role in early education,” and that this “has put quality at risk and will considerably widen gaps in access.”
Gaps in Access
The inequality of access to the 30 hour scheme is evident from the analysis of the scheme laid out in the document:
- To qualify for 30 hours of free childcare, each parent (or the sole parent in alone parent family) needs to earn on average the equivalent of 16 hours on the national minimum wage per week, and no more than £100,000 per year. A family with an annual household income of £199,999 would be eligible if each parent earns just under £100,000.
- Analysis shows that just 20 per cent of families in the bottom third of earning distribution were eligible for the 30 hour entitlement, while 70 per cent of those who could claim the hours were from homes in the top half of earners.
- Parents who are in full-time education or training are not eligible for the current 30-hour entitlement.
- Children from low-income families who do not qualify for the 30 hour entitlement will only qualify for 15 hours at ages three and four. This means that children from predominantly lower income families receive fewer state funded hours.
These disparities in eligibility, according to the Trust, will only widen the already “substantial gap in development between the poorest children and their better off peers before they start school.”
The Early Years is the most cost-effective place to invest in education and the Sutton Trust is calling on the UK Government to invest here “to narrow the attainment gap before children start at school.”
Qualifications of Early Years educators
A qualified workforce provides quality in Early Years education. The Sutton Trust provides statistics on the declining levels of qualified Early Years educators in England.
Government guidance states that a manager of any setting must hold a relevant Level 3 qualification (equivalent to A levels) and have at least two years’ experience. All other staff must have a Level 2 qualification (equivalent to GCSEs).
According to the briefing document, the proportion of unqualified staff working in the sector has risen in recent years: In 2023, one in five staff members were unqualified, up from one in seven in 2018.
The proportion of staff with full and relevant level 3 qualifications dropped from 63 per cent in 2018 to 59 per cent in 2023.
Efforts to have a graduate leader in all settings have also been hampered by the removal of the Graduate Leader Fund. This funding was ring fenced for providers to fund employing graduate-level staff, “however, once this funding was withdrawn, providers struggled to afford the higher wages to pay employees at this level,” according to the Sutton Trust.
To ensure quality in the Early Years sector, the Sutton Trust recommends the introduction of an Early Years’ workforce strategy, alongside adequate funding for settings to offer higher wages needed to attract qualified staff, and to support training.
What can Irish policy makers take from this briefing document?
- To ensure equality of access, government schemes that commit to providing free “childcare” or Early Years provision must provide equal access to all children. The Sutton Trust briefing adds that “where…universal access is not possible, the focus should be on making additional hours affordable for all families.”
- Entitlements to Early Years and School Age Care must not create a two-tier system, where specific groups of children benefit more over other groups of children.
- Offering varying levels of hours of free “childcare” or Early Years education could also result in a two-tier system where providers might prioritise families who are eligible for more hours.
- The 30 hour scheme will have an impact on capacity. The Sutton Trust states that “there is a risk that any expansion does not include lower income families.” It suggests “the option of removing the hours system, and instead adopting a fully means tested system, with a sliding scale model for fees based on a family’s income level…. These models can also work well for disadvantaged children and their families, as long as subsidy levels are set appropriately to ensure all families can access this support.”
- Early Years and School Age Care policies must ensure a balance between supporting child development through high quality early learning provision and supporting parents’ employment with affordable childcare.
- Any workforce strategy for the Early Years and School Age Care sector must consider the pay and conditions of staff, including the offer of opportunities for Continuous Professional Development (CPD).
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