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Transforming early childhood: narrowing the gap between children from lower- and higher-income families

Socioeconomic inequalities emerge early in a child's life, with far-reaching and lasting consequences. In this paper, Professor Kathy Sylva and Naomi Eisenstadt offer a comprehensive blueprint for creating an ideal system for all children growing up in England, irrespective of their family’s financial circumstances. They detail the changes in policy and delivery necessary to narrow the gap in outcomes at school entry between children in low-income families and their better-off peers.

What’s in the report?

The authors provide a detailed discussion of current state provisions for children under five – reflecting on the evidence of what has benefitted children from low-income backgrounds and what has not. They then move to setting out nine recommendations to narrow the gap in school readiness between children in low-income families and their better off peers. These recommendations are:

  • Improve pay, working conditions and career structure for the early years workforce;
  • Improve workforce training, building collaboration between universities, further education colleges and providers to ensure a ladder of qualifications;
  • Increase the pupil premium to the primary school level, and allowing providers to apply for it instead of parents;
  • Increase the hourly rate for childcare entitlements funded by the state;
  • Give PVI providers the same business rate status as providers in the maintained sector;
  • Offer an entitlement to state-funded ECEC for all children from two years of age, 20 hours per week, 48 weeks per year. For children between 12 and 24 months whose parents are in employment, education or training, we recommend 20 hours per week, 48 weeks per year state-funded ECEC;
  • Build on, or establish new children’s campuses providing a range of family support services for parents and early education and care for children;
  • Give parents one year paid parental leave from the birth of the baby, shared between both parents; and
  • Remove the two child limit on Universal Credit and other benefits.

The recommendations aim to balance parents' need to have flexible childcare options that support various working patterns, with the needs of children for high-quality ECEC. They reflect a mix of financial measures, enhanced service provision and system redesign.

Weighing up all the evidence, the single most important action to bridge the gap is to provide high-quality, teacher-led early education, ideally starting from two years of age for children from low-income families. Parallel efforts to reduce child poverty itself should be part of the longer-term road map.


Professor Kathy Sylva

Professor Kathy Sylva is Honorary Research Fellow and Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Oxford.

Naomi Eisenstadt CB

Naomi Eisenstadt is chair of the NHS Northamptonshire Integrated Care Board. After a long career in the NGO sector, in 1999 Naomi became Director of Sure Start.