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Closing the gap in access to free ‘universal’ early education: What affects participation among low-income families?

Tammy Campbell Ludovica Gambaro Kitty Stewart

For over a decade, all children in England have been entitled to free government-funded early education and care from the term after they turn three. One of the aims of this policy is to close the developmental gap between higher-income and low-income children. However, this cannot happen if families do not in fact access their funded hours. In our new research, published this month in the British Educational Research Journal and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we explore inequalities in take-up of the ‘universal’ entitlement, and find stark disparities according to children’s backgrounds.

Using the National Pupil Database (a regular, individual-level census of all children in state-funded education in England), we match information across years, and build a complete picture of the 205,865 autumn-born four-year-olds attending pre-school in spring 2011. We look back to spring 2010, and establish which of these children also attended when they first became eligible, at three. Almost one-in-five did not access free early education from the beginning of their entitlement. Furthermore, the proportion is much higher among children from families with persistently low incomes: nearly a third were not in pre-school at this point. So the children who are intended particularly to benefit from ‘universal’ provision attend for the shortest period of time.

We also find differences by ethnicity and home language. Only 61 per cent of three-year-olds with English as an additional language (EAL) received their funded hours from the beginning of their eligibility, compared to 86 per cent of children speaking English only. And only 49 per cent of Bangladeshi and 63 per cent of Black African children attended, compared to 87 per cent of those from White British families. However, these differences by reported EAL and ethnic group do not account for the gap by income-level: children from persistently poor White British households, for example, are at least as likely not to attend as non-poor children who speak English as an additional language. ‘Universal’ pre-schooling therefore appears to be far from universal, and children who go on to claim free school meals (FSM) in every year of early primary school are far less likely than children never claiming FSM to access an early place.

So what factors are associated with this inequality in access? Our analyses indicate that the types of provision available locally seem to play a part. In areas where most funded places are taken up in the private sector, attendance among poor families is lowest. In areas with early education predominantly in the state-maintained sector, all children attend for fewer terms – but there is less inequality, and the gap between low and higher-income families is small. And in those relatively few areas with more Sure Start provision, take-up is high overall, and the gap between income groups significantly reduced.

‘Recent policy shifts continue to increase the extent to which subsidies for early education are concentrated disproportionately on those children least in need of a head start.’

Our research highlights the need for more policy focus on how to ensure appropriate, accessible early education can be available for families from all income-levels and circumstances. Simply providing a national entitlement to free hours appears to be insufficient in facilitating actual take-up. Despite these existing inequities, recent policy shifts continue to increase the extent to which subsidies for early education are concentrated disproportionately on those children least in need of a head start. The extension of the free entitlement to 30 hours applies only to children of working parents (earning up to £100,000 per year); alongside this, Sure Start provision has been closing.

The upshot of the current funding system and structure is a spectrum of disparities in access and entitlements to free pre-schooling. An autumn-born child in a higher income, working family can receive five funded terms at 30 hours – compared to a maximum of just three terms at 15 hours for a summer-born child in a family whose parents have become unemployed. Without attention to these issues, the ‘universal’ free places, while hailed in the prevalent policy narrative as a great success, may play a part in embedding or widening inequalities – in direct contrast to their stated policy aims. It is time now for a clear and transparent reassessment of the purposes and consequences of funding for the pre-school stage – looking properly at which children win under the developing system, and who misses out.

Tammy Campbell, Ludovica Gambaro and Kitty Stewart’s original article in the British Educational Research Journal (BERJ), ‘“Universal” early education: Who benefits? Patterns in take‐up of the entitlement to free early education among three‐year‐olds in England’, can now be read freely online until 31 August on Wiley Online.

The Nuffield Foundation funded this research. The Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at