The extension of free nursery places for two-year-olds will only help to deliver the government’s goal of greater social mobility if take-up and quality of provision are improved, according to a new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research.
The government is investing £300m in extending early years provision to disadvantaged two-year-olds. This will increase the number of places offering 15 hours a week of free nursery provision from 20,000 to 130,000 over the next four years. But research by ippr shows that this welcome initiative will only help to achieve greater social mobility if the quality of free nursery provision and its take-up by low-income families are ensured.
Ippr found that many low-income parents will not, without encouragement, turn up at a children’s centre to use their free entitlement. In particular, those with two-year-olds are less likely to realise that these free services are available to them.
To encourage take-up it will be important for outreach workers, who work with low-income parents and encourage them to take up free nursery places, should be viewed as the ‘first frontline’ by local authorities and therefore protected from spending cuts.
The other factor which impacts on the outcome is the quality of the nursery providers. Ofsted’s evaluation of a government pilot showed that the outcomes for disadvantaged two-year-olds only improved significantly if the free early years provision is of a high quality. Yet, in England, only 68 per cent of providers reach this standard, defined by Ofsted as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.
To drive up standards, ippr recommends the Government established Early Education Co-Production group should ensure that only providers defined as high quality can deliver services to disadvantaged two-year-olds. The commitment that early learning for two-year-olds in disadvantaged areas is always delivered by a provider with a graduate-level leader should also be restored.