Three Department for Education packages aimed at supporting child development and helping parents to manage childcare costs so that they can work risk having a “negative impact on social mobility”, the National Audit Office has warned.
The public spending watchdog said the entitlements to free early education and childcare for pre-school children in England – worth £3.5bn in the current financial year – could actually increase the development gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.
According to the NAO, while around 1.45m children benefited from the DfE’s support packages as of January last year, barriers to making use of the entitlements particularly affected disadvantaged families, while awareness of the help available was lowest in England’s most deprived areas.
The three DfE-funded entitlements are the “disadvantage entitlement” of 15 hours of free childcare per week for disadvantaged two-year-olds; the “universal entitlement” of 15 hours per week for all three- and four-year olds; and the “extended entitlement” of an additional 15 hours per week for three- and four-year-olds with eligible working parents.
According to the NAO, take up of the universal entitlement is high, with 93% using it as of January last year, and take-up of the extended entitlement has increased since it was introduced in 2017.
However the watchdog said that take-up of the disadvantage entitlement was below DfE’s national target of 73% to 77% of eligible two-year-olds.
The NAO added that although the national take-up was 68%, it varied from 39% to 97% at local-authority level, with families in deprived areas “less likely than families in other areas to take up these free childcare places”.
It noted that in 2019, there was a 17-percentage-point-gap in the proportion of children achieving a good level of development between children in the 10% most-deprived and 10% least-deprived areas. The watchdog added that despite conducting trials, DfE lacked “robust evidence” on effective approaches to improving take-up of its early-years entitlements among disadvantaged families.
NAO head Gareth Davies said DfE needed to work with local authorities to develop a better understanding of the approaches that worked best to boost take-up. He said the department should also assess the extent to which additional charges imposed by some early-years providers – such as for meals or other activities – could be a barrier to poorer families.
“Families with young children across the country are benefiting from their entitlement to free early education and childcare places, which aim to prepare children for school and improve their life chances,” he said.
“However, if these entitlements are to help level the playing field, it is essential that more disadvantaged children benefit from high-quality childcare.
“DfE should do more to ensure that all disadvantaged families are aware of the free childcare on offer and are able to access it.”
According to DfE’s 2019 parents’ survey, 72% of respondents in the one-fifth most deprived areas of England were aware of the extended entitlement for early years care that was on offer, compared with 91% in the least deprived areas.
A different DfE survey in 2018 found 74% of entitlement-funded early years providers made additional charges, such as for meals or certain activities.
The NAO report can be read here.