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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Want to boost uptake of free childcare and early education? Behavioural science can help

Access to free childcare can make a huge difference to individual children, to families and to society at large.

We know that quality early childhood education has a big impact on children’s development, particularly for the most disadvantaged children. That’s why the support available to help parents with childcare costs has increased across the UK in recent years.

These policies aim to narrow the ‘school readiness’ or poverty-related attainment gap – the gap in learning outcomes between children from rich and poor families which is already apparent when children start school. Across the UK, family income plays a big role in influencing whether a child is cognitively, socially and emotionally developed enough to succeed in school.

But despite the offer of free childcare and early education being available, lots of low income families still don’t take up the support they are entitled to.

In 2019, 68% of eligible two year olds were enrolled in government-funded early education in England. Fast forward to 2021 – following the many pandemic-related challenges faced by parents and the early years sector – the number has dropped even further to 62%.

There are lots of reasons why parents might not take up an offer of free childcare. There could be a lack of good quality nursery places in their local area, or the hours on offer might not fit with other commitments. But it might also be that parents aren’t aware this offer is available, or they might find the process of applying overly complicated or time consuming.

That's where behavioural science comes in. Our Behavioural Insights Team are experts in the psychological prompts that can ‘nudge’ people's behaviour in different ways. And we can use this experience to make communications around free childcare across the UK more effective.

Using the principles of behavioural science, we’ve put together a new early years toolkit aimed at local authorities looking to boost uptake of free childcare services.

The first section explains how behavioural insights can be applied to increase childcare take-up. We know from previous research that small changes to a letter – like including a check-list of what the reader will need to take action – can make a major difference. So we’ve included examples of childcare offer letters informed by behavioural science and the sort of changes that could help.

The second section provides a one stop shop for running an experiment to test which version of a communication is most effective. It’s really useful for local authorities to use this type of evaluation so that they can test in an objective way whether the changes they’re introducing actually work.

By applying the tools of behavioural science, local authorities can be better equipped to promote free childcare and early education to families who might otherwise miss out. And the impact of that should not be underestimated. Free childcare has a vital role to play in closing the outcome gap between children from rich and poor families.

The more disadvantaged two year olds who attend quality early education, the better the future looks – both for individual children and for the fairness of society as a whole.


Louise Bazalgette

Louise Bazalgette

Louise Bazalgette

Deputy Director, fairer start mission

Louise works as part of a multi-disciplinary innovation team focused on narrowing the outcome gap for disadvantaged children.

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