Disadvantaged families are less likely to take up free early education and childcare places, auditors have warned today.
A new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) also found that the quality of childcare providers is lower in the most deprived areas of England. It warns this could increase the development gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.
The NAO estimates that while the Department for Education (DfE) has increased total funding for free early education and childcare for pre-school children in England by 24% over the last three years, funding for the disadvantaged and universal entitlements has fallen by 4%.
It did find though the vast majority of eligible families are benefiting from the entitlements, with 93% using the entitlement in January 2019.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: 'Families with young children across the country are benefiting from their entitlement to free early education and childcare places, which aim to prepare children for school and improve their life chances.
'However, if these entitlements are to help level the playing field, it is essential that more disadvantaged children benefit from high-quality childcare. DfE should do more to ensure that all disadvantaged families are aware of the free childcare on offer and are able to access it.'
The NAO is calling for the DfE to work with local authorities to develop the best way of getting more disadvantaged families to take-up the entitlement.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: 'We want every child to have the best start in life which is why we are planning to spend more than £3.6bn on our early education entitlements in 2020-21.
'Over one million children are benefitting from our investment in childcare and early years education but we want to better this. We are working with the NAO and local authorities to improve awareness and take up of the entitlements, so that even more disadvantaged families can access high quality, affordable early education and childcare.'
In response to the report, cllr Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: 'Changes to the early years funding formula, and insufficient funding rates, are making it more difficult for councils to incentivise providers or to carry out their own work to increase uptake amongst disadvantaged families.
'Councils want to work with government to boost take-up among disadvantaged families. The upcoming Spending Review must invest vital funding into making sure parents and carers can access the right childcare when they need it.'