It’s now over four years since the government introduced free part-time early education for disadvantaged two-year-olds in England. Rolled out first to the 20% most disadvantaged families in 2013, and then to the next 20% a year later, the idea was to reduce the stark inequalities in early child development that are evident as children start primary school.
Take-up of the two-year-old places among those eligible increased markedly from 58% in 2015 to 68% in 2016, and then more gradually to 71% in 2017. Evidence suggests that the initial rise reflected growing awareness of the policy and more places being made available. But now that the policy has become established, will the increase tail-off? These overall figures mask regional variation from 39% take-up in Tower Hamlets to full take-up in Warrington. Across the country, around 67,000 disadvantaged children are missing out on early education. So what are the barriers?
New evidence from NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey published last week reveals that the British public are generally positive about education and childcare for two-year-olds with over 95% selecting advantages from a list. But what do people see as the main point of early education at two? For most people, the benefit is about children learning to be around other children (the main reason given by 41% of those asked), with educational development much less likely to be chosen (11%) possibly reflecting a lack of awareness of what ‘education’ means at the age of two.
When asked to reflect on the disadvantages of early education and childcare for under threes, attitudes were more negative than they were for three and four-year-olds. The main disadvantages selected were picking up bad habits and behaviour (18%) and being too young to be away from parents (16%). More highly educated adults were more concerned with children not getting enough individual attention, whereas those with no qualifications focused more on children being away from their parents. It’s possible that these attitudes of the British public help to explain the reticence of some eligible families to take advantage of the funded provision for young children.
As I concluded in a recent review, more evidence is needed to understand the ‘personal preferences’ cited by eligible parents as reasons for not taking up the two-year-old offer. How important is perceived quality, regional variation in provision or cultural differences? How well understood are the educational benefits? The latest evidence from the Study of Early Education and Development confirmed that there are positive effects of early education for cognitive and socio-emotional development at age two, with different outcomes associated with group based nursery settings and childminders. For take-up to increase, greater awareness is needed not just of the offer, but of the benefits for children