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Blog post Part of special issue: What are we educating for?

Early education and childcare: A tension to be managed?

Naomi Eisenstadt, Chair of the NHS Northamptonshire Integrated Care Board

The recent announcement in England about extending free childcare for working parents seemed like very good news. The offer, to be realised over two to three years, included free childcare of 30 hours per week in school term time from the end of the Statutory Maternity Pay period of 39 weeks through to school entry aged five years. It seemed very good news for English parents. There is less certainty that this is good news for English children.

The heart of the debate on services for children under five years of age is what is the main purpose of the offer. Economic prosperity is dependent on women returning to the labour market after childbirth. There is considerable evidence that staying out of work for some years is a significant factor in the gender pay gap and has deleterious impact on women’s occupational pensions. Both for a striving economy and gender equality, some free hours of childcare linked to affordable and available extra hours to suit work patterns should be welcomed. Employment is also seen as a route out of poverty, and poverty has negative impacts on children.

Moreover, decades of research has shown that early education and care, particularly starting around two years of age, boosts child development and school readiness. The Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3–16) study has shown that academic gains can be seen up to the age of 16 for children who have experienced high-quality regular nursery provision from two or three years of age (see Sylva et al., 2014). More recent evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown health gains for children who participated in Sure Start, a programme of integrated family support services, including childcare (Cattan et al., 2021). These gains were greater for children from lower-income families.

Is the main purpose of early childhood care and education mainly about workforce participation for women, poverty reduction, or improvements in school readiness? Many will say it can achieve all three. However, there is an ongoing tension between the three essential features of childcare: affordability, flexibility and quality. Affordability is essential to ensure that returning to work makes economic sense for the family. If the additional income is consumed by high-priced childcare, it is not attractive. Flexibility is essential for a variety of work patterns. Many women will prefer to work part-time, two or three days per week. However, most of the evidence on the benefits of early education and care are realised by four or five days per week, either three hours or six hours per day. Three to five hours per day, five days per week yields benefits for children, but not for flexible working patterns. There is also ongoing debate on the age at which group care should start. There is mixed evidence on benefits and disadvantages of starting under two, and there is some evidence that starting under one may result in poor social development outcomes for some children. No matter what age children are in nursery, there is no argument that quality is key to improving school readiness. Quality is linked to staff qualifications and qualifications are linked to higher wages. Sadly, wages for early years workers in England are very low, the numbers of qualified staff have been reducing over the past few years and staff turnover is high.

‘There is an ongoing tension between the three essential features of childcare: affordability, flexibility and quality.’

We all have a role to play in improving this difficult situation. The most important role is that of policymakers who need to agree on clarity of intent, given the tensions between the three essential features of childcare. Are we providing childcare to ensure a current workforce, or are we providing early education in the expectation of a more skilled and better qualified workforce for the future?

Academics also have a role to play. The economists and the child development experts need to give evidence on the trade-offs between reducing poverty by improving family incomes or ameliorating the impact of poverty by high-quality early years education. Research could also yield advice on the best age for starting group care and the patterns of home and group care that yield the best results for children, recognising that all children and all families are different. No one solution will work for everyone.

Childhood is not just preparation for adulthood and a productive workforce. Childhood should be seen as a stage of life in its own right. We should be aiming to provide young children with warmth and love, environments that provide fun and challenge, and care that not only prepares children for the next stage but is a joyful experience during those essential early years.


Cattan, S., Conti, G., Farquharson, C., Ginja, R., & Pecher, M. (2021). The health impacts of Sure Start. Institute for Fiscal Studies.  

Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj, I., & Taggart, B. (2014). Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16: Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education (EPPSE 3–16) Project. Department for Education.