The government’s flagship plan to double the amount of free childcare for parents will overwhelmingly benefit richer families, Social Market Foundation analysis has found, and a new cross-departmental taskforce should be formed to boost social mobility.
In a just published report, the think tank urged the Department for Education to lead the creation of 10-year Social Mobility Strategy, as well as the creation of a Cabinet committee on social mobility led by the prime minister, in order to address concerns that existing efforts like expanded free childcare will mainly benefit the better off.
Under a Conservative manifesto pledge that comes into effect on September 1, free term-time care for three and four-year-olds will double from 15 hours a week to 30 as part of a £9bn drive to boost childcare and early years education over the next five years.
However the SMF said 75% of the money for extending the free entitlement for parents of three and four-year-olds would benefit the top half of households by income, with the added risk that the move “could damage early education and care as it stands, pushing up the price for parents, and reducing quality”.
The think tank, which was working with Labour MP and former shadow education secretary Lucy Powell, also found that just £250m of the £9bn figure was earmarked for children from disadvantaged families.
Powell said ministers were “skewing” resources towards the better off.
“With a singular focus on early years policies which subsidise the already well-off, the government is leaving disadvantaged children lagging further and further behind,” she said.
“Far from addressing this [lack of social mobility], over the next parliament this is set to get significantly worse with just 2.7% of new money for early education and care dedicated to the most vulnerable children, and only a quarter benefiting the bottom half by income of families.
“This huge skewing of resources seriously risks a widening developmental gap between disadvantaged children and their better off peers at the age of five, creating a lost generation who will struggle to ever catch up.”
The think-tank is calling for a rethink of the policy, and a shift towards a universal childcare offer that is more geared towards helping disadvantaged children than subsidising working families.
It wants to see the creation of a cross-government social-mobility strategy that is strongly focused on early years, and against which all budgets, bills and government policies should be assessed to ensure mobility is increased and inequality gaps are closed across the nation.
The new social mobility strategy and cabinet committee would drive delivery and co-ordination across government, according to the report. In addition to the Department for Education, it identified the Department of Health, Department for Communities and Local Government, the Treasury, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as key ministries.
The report suggested that the secretary of state for education should become the secretary of state for education and social mobility, charged with championing early intervention social policies to boost mobility.
Responding to the report, education minister Robert Goodwill said: "We are determined to support as many families as possible with access to high-quality, affordable childcare, which is why we are investing a record £6bn every year by 2020 in childcare – more than ever before – and doubling the free childcare available to working parents to 30 hours a week, saving them up to £5,000 a year per child."