William Eichler 28 September 2017

Gov’s free childcare policy undermines social mobility, report says

The Government’s free childcare policy could undermine social mobility by widening the gap in school readiness between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers, social mobility experts say.

Last month the Conservatives launched their free childcare policy which saw the amount of free childcare available for three and four year olds double to 30 hours per week.

The education secretary Justine Greening argues the policy will save families around £5,000 per year on childcare, as well as helping people to better balance their jobs and family lives.

However, a new report from the social mobility group The Sutton Trust warns the policy will harm the future prospects of disadvantaged children by emphasising the amount of hours available over the type of care on offer.

The report - entitled Closing Gaps Early - argues that high-quality early years provision delivered by qualified professionals is crucial for ‘boosting the development’ of the poorest toddlers.

Recent policy developments, however, have undermined this, the report’s authors claim.

The Government has axed financial support for graduate training for early years professionals; lifted the requirement for Sure Start centres in disadvantaged areas to offer graduate-led early education; and proposed removing the requirement for nursery and reception classes to have a qualified teacher.

The Trust argues that by increasing the amount of free childcare while cutting the funding necessary for providing quality care, the Government is placing ‘quantity over quality’, a policy that will only lead to a decrease in social mobility.

The Trust would like to see funding secured to ensure qualified teachers remain in place in school nursery and reception classes, with support for continuing professional development and greater career opportunities for early years professionals.

‘Good quality early years provision is vital to narrow the gaps that leave too many youngsters behind by the time they start school. But it’s unlikely that the government’s policy to provide 30 hours of free childcare will provide this,’ said Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation.

‘It is understandable that the government wants to improve access to childcare for working parents. But this must not be at the expense of good early education for disadvantaged children. It is the quality of provision that matters.

‘Focusing on getting it right for the poorest two and three year-olds would make a much bigger difference to social mobility, by improving their chances at school and in later life.’

The Sutton Trust’s report follows a recent warning from Labour MP Lucy Powell who said just 2.7% of the extra £9bn funding the Government set aside for early years provision in this Parliament will reach the most disadvantaged children.

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