A fair start? Poor children locked out of vital early years services

I awake this morning to news of yet another example of the deceit underpinning this government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda, in one of the most neglected areas of public policy: the support for our youngest children.

According to the latest research by the Sutton Trust and the Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust, England’s poorest children are being ‘locked-out’ of early years services because their parents do not earn enough. Yes, you read that right. Despite all of the evidence showing the difference that quality early years intervention can make to disadvantaged children and their families, differences that can benefit them for years, if you are poor, you don’t get it.

All three- and four- year-olds are entitled to 15 hours of childcare per week, along with two-year olds from disadvantaged families. Since 2017 the parents of three and four-year olds who earn at least the equivalent of 16 hours on the minimum national wage per week are entitled to a further 15 hours. Of those eligible for the full 30 hours, the report shows that 70 per cent are in the top half of earners, 13 per cent in the bottom third. So, a quarter of a million children do not get the support that could benefit them the most.

Dr Rebecca Montacute, research and policy manager at the Sutton Trust, told the PA News agency: “The government clearly thinks that these children need additional support, which is why they put it in place when they are two. But then the policy focus just completely shifts at three and four, and rather than giving these children more support they actually end up getting less – even though they obviously still get 15 hours all the way through, they’re getting less in comparison to their better-off peers.”

Not only is this policy failing at ‘levelling up’ the opportunities for children from our poorest families, it is actively widening inequalities that will just get worse as they enter the schooling system. ‘A Fair Start?’ notes that disadvantaged children can be as much as nine months behind their peers when they start school, and in 2018 and 2019 this attainment gap widened for the first time in more than a decade. Naturally there are growing concerns that the pandemic will widen this gap further because of the lack of early intervention and basic provision in the children’s first 1,000 days, as reported by the Parent Infant Foundation.

And what would it cost to fund the expansion? The report estimates £165m (remembering of course that this is based on the current deliberate underfunding of the services that I have reported on before). It would raise spending by about £250m in 2024-2025. The price of a yacht? Sunak claims that we don’t have the money, and the current spend on childcare entitlements annually is £3.5bn. Well, look at how incompetently they are managing our money: SERCO £37bn, HS2 100bn, Brexit £200bn, Afghan war £200bn, while maintaining a tax system where FTSE bosses earned 86 times more than an average worker in 2020. Where is our anger?

As Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“We know how important high-quality early education is for young children, yet the poorest three and four-year-olds are locked out of these opportunities, simply because their parents do not earn enough. This is a national scandal.

“We wouldn’t accept the state providing longer school hours for well-off families, and we shouldn’t accept it in the early years.”

If you are still not convinced, another recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows further evidence of the benefits of Sure Start (a scheme which this government has decimated). It found that increasing children’s access to Sure Start centres a decade ago is reflected in reduced hospitalisations of 11 year-olds today – this is only happening in the poorest 30 per cent of areas, not in the richest 30 per cent. The scheme made a difference in the places where it was needed and the savings to the NHS now amount to £5m a year. Surely a no-brainer to invest in our youngest children?

If, Johnson and Co, you want a good news headline – and you can surely do with one after the Afghanistan debacle – then all that Vicky Ford has to do is announce that she will act on the recommendations of the report and give all children the access to high quality, affordable childcare that they deserve. All the work has been done for you.

Just do it.