Nursery funding should go to poorest families only, says charity

12 Feb 10
Funding to expand free nursery education for all should be redirected to only help children from the poorest families, according to report published today
By Lucy Phillips

15 February 2010

Funding to expand free nursery education for all should be redirected to only help children from the poorest families, according to a report published today.

Education charity the Sutton Trust said there were ‘stark educational inequalities during the early years in the UK’ and called on government to redress the balance.

The ‘greatest gains’ would be achieved by targeting any extra early years support at the most disadvantaged children, according to Cognitive gaps in the early years. The current entitlement of 12.5 hours free nursery education a week for all three- and four-year-olds is due to be raised to 15 hours from September. But the Sutton Trust says the money should be redirected to provide 25 hours of education a week to two to four-year-olds from the 15% most disadvantaged families.       

Today’s report, based on a survey of 12,500 five-year-olds, revealed children growing up in the UK’s poorest families were almost a year behind children from middle-income families in vocabulary tests by the time they started school.

Sutton Trust chair Sir Peter Lampl described the situation as ‘shocking’. He said: ‘It is a tragic indictment on modern society that our children’s future life prospects depend so much on their family background, not their individual talents.’

The findings came despite years of investment in children’s centres and nursery education, and a swathe of other initiatives to reduce child poverty. The government is half way through a ten-year national childcare strategy, which includes extending current pilots of free nursery education for the poorest two-year-olds. Prime Minister Gordon Brown had intended to fund this by scrapping childcare vouchers but public backlash reversed his decision, meaning provision will now increase more slowly and go to fewer children. 
Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Daycare Trust, a charity that campaigns for affordable and accessible childcare for all, told Public Finance that all families should have access to childcare, not only the poorest.

She said a universal entitlement of at least 20 hours a week would allow all children aged two to four to reap the educational benefits, as well as provide ‘a stepping-stone’ for  parents on benefits ‘to move into paid work without having to worry about the cost of childcare, which is very high’. A survey, published by the Daycare Trust on 10 February, found that costs of nursery places rose well-beyond inflation last year, with parents in England paying £4,576 on average every year for 25 hours of care per week.

Garnham called on all political parties to commit to expanding free childcare places. The government has pledged to protect future spending on its Sure Start programme for better childcare but the Conservatives are yet to make such an assurance. While admitting funding was ‘difficult at the moment’, Garnham said the move would be ‘crucial for children’s development and the next generation achieving their potential’.

She added that the UK had a poor record on publicly-funded childcare compared with other European countries. ‘It’s not yet at the stage we would expect a public service to be. If we regress now we won’t be left in a good position,’ she warned.

Children’s minister Delyth Morgan said the Sutton Trust’s report failed to reflect much of the progress that has been made in recent years.

‘While there is much more to do, the gap between rich and poor in early years is closing with the lowest-achieving children not only keeping pace but improving faster than the rest. We will continue to focus extra resources on the most disadvantaged children,’ she said.

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