45 million lost hours? Understanding usage of the two–year–old free childcare offer
In 2013 the government introduced 15 hours of funded childcare a week for disadvantaged two-year-old children in England. The aims of the policy were to improve the quality of education for disadvantaged children and encourage the best providers to expand into disadvantaged areas. However, the latest evidence suggests that the scheme has had little impact on reducing the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children.
If the pattern of attendance found in our partner local authorities is similar across England, we estimate that there could be as many as 16 million hours per year of missed early childhood education and care for disadvantaged two year olds who are enrolled in the government’s funded scheme but do not attend. If we include the hours missed by eligible children whose families don’t take up the two-year-old-offer, disadvantaged children in England could be missing out on as many as 45 million hours of early childhood education and care (ECEC) per year. Without new efforts from central government and more support for local authorities and the childcare sector, the two-year-old offer risks failing to fulfil its potential as a tool for closing educational disadvantage.
This paper, made in collaboration with Nesta’s fairer start local partnership and the Behavioural Insights Team, explores two key challenges facing the government’s funded early childhood education and care (ECEC) offer. Firstly, take-up of the scheme for two year olds is persistently hovering at 72%. Secondly, our research finds that those who do take up the offer have lower attendance rates than less disadvantaged children accessing the same childcare settings.
Our findings indicate that tweaks to existing communications about the two-year-old offer alone are not sufficient to substantially improve take-up rates. Instead, alternative approaches, bolder action and consideration of larger-scale policy changes are needed to bring about a step-change in take-up rates. Our work also highlighted the possibility that attendance patterns in the early years are influencing attainment gaps.
High-quality ECEC has the potential to be transformative in supporting the development of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and reducing the outcome gap. Bolder joint action must be taken to make sure families can access and consistently engage with their entitlements to ECEC and help ensure children growing up in disadvantage are able to reach their full potential.