It is nearly twenty years since a long-cherished goal of early years campaigners was delivered by the Blair government: the right to free nursery education for all three- and four-year olds. Since then, much has changed in early years policy: mothers are entitled to more time off and families have benefited from tax credits. Sure Start children’s centres brought many services together too.
The free entitlement was to 12.5 hours a week of early years education, planned locally but largely delivered through private and voluntary providers (at the same time as vouchers were scrapped). That universal entitlement increased to 15 hours in 2010, and was extended in 2013 to less advantaged two-year-olds. The latest figures show that 93% of three year olds and 97% of four-year olds are taking advantage of the free provision. This month, children in working families had that entitlement extended to 30 hours a week.
But while extended access to childcare may do a lot to help the labour market and working mothers, and certainly represents a major increase in the state’s commitment to childcare support, it may make it harder to improve social mobility through such early interventions. The government is trying to introduce this at a time of austerity, so quality could suffer.
And that’s the nub of the problem. A third of eligible children – those from the poorest 40% of society – don’t currently take up free provision at age two and a tenth of poorer families don’t take up their entitlement at age three. The government has halted a commitment to improving the qualifications of those working with young children even though a third of such key workers haven’t got decent GCSE passes in English and maths.
Sure Start and children’s centres are being closed or stripped of many of their functions. Some benefits are being reduced for children, particularly in larger families. And funding is being reduced for the higher quality more expensive providers – maintained state nursery schools and reception classes – alongside the…