World Class: What England can learn from global experience to make early years policy work for disadvantaged children

Group of nursery school children painting with their teacher, photo by Halfpoint/Adobe Stock

Photo by Halfpoint/Adobe Stock

High quality programmes that focus on engaging disadvantaged families can narrow the attainment gap by almost half between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children.

What is the issue?

Research indicates that high quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) has the potential to significantly improve life chances for children, bridging the attainment gap between lower-income children and their more advantaged peers. We also know that England's early years system is at a critical juncture, with ongoing discussions for reform and recent budget announcements signalling a large-scale expansion. However, while research tells us that high-quality early years provision is important, understanding what this looks like in practice has remained a challenge up until now. Our report, funded by the Sutton Trust, has started to address this challenge by looking at what England can learn from other countries to make early years policy work for all children.

How did we help?

Our report looks to address the gaps in the English system by looking at successful systems around the world, highlighting opportunities across three key themes: highly qualified staff, high staff-to-child ratios, and removing barriers for disadvantaged families. By pulling together practical examples from around the world, this report shows how England can create an environment where every child, regardless of their family situation, has the opportunity to thrive.

What did we find?

The most influential factor affecting quality in early childcare is the education, qualifications and training of the workforce, with higher education qualifications associated with better child outcomes. This is particularly true for more disadvantaged children. However, in England staff qualifications vary considerably between settings, and evidence suggests they could become less qualified in future.

Evidence shows that a higher number of staff to children is associated with better quality. In fact, countries that are known for high quality early years provision, or that have seen improvements over recent years, have made progressive changes to ensure there are fewer children per educator.

High quality programmes that focus on engaging disadvantaged families can narrow the attainment gap by almost half between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children. However, disadvantaged families generally have lower than average enrolment in ECEC, but it can be improved through targeted outreach and initiatives. The current system in England could be widening the attainment gap by excluding disadvantaged families - children whose parents do not work or who do not work enough hours are potentially the most disadvantaged, missing out on 570 hours of provision per year compared to their more advantaged peers. Despite the existing 15-hour offer at age two, disadvantaged children in England could be missing out on as many as 45 million hours of ECEC learning per year.

What can be done?

Prioritising and improving staff qualification levels is essential. Countries who have expanded their early years workforce have used existing infrastructures (e.g., universities, existing teacher training bodies) to increase capacity for initial teacher training and ongoing professional development. England could provide financial support and protected time for staff to participate in initial qualifications and continuous professional development. Reinstating the Graduate Leader Fund in areas with higher levels of disadvantage could help attract and retain qualified professionals in areas where the workforce would have the highest impact. Moreover, increasing early years staff wages and ensuring equity across maintained and private, voluntary and independent (PVI) settings is likely to improve the quality of the workforce across all settings.

Maintaining an adequate number of staff members in relation to the number of children is crucial for high quality provision. While England's staff-to-child ratios for children aged two and under are aligned with international standards, it is recommended to maintain or ideally increase the number of staff per child for other age groups. This ensures optimal support, supervision and care, ultimately enhancing the learning experience and outcomes for children.

Expanding England’s free early years entitlements to lower-income families, like the criteria for disadvantaged two-year-olds, would be a vital step to ensuring equal access. The English government could capitalise on the previous work of Sure Start Centres and current Family Hubs to offer combined services. Some countries have also successfully used outreach, through grassroots or targeted public advertising campaigns to stimulate demand and engagement of disadvantaged families.