Sutton Trust highlights early years childcare disadvantages

Sutton Trust’s latest research shows disparity in early years childcare access between disadvantaged children and their peers. 

Close up of child's hands playing with colorful plastic bricks and red motocicle at the table. Toddler having fun and building out of bright constructor bricks. Early years childcare


The poorest families should be given access to 30 hours a week free childcare for three and four year-olds, according to the Sutton Trust, which says that differences in access are widening inequality.

The study, conducted in partnership with the Sylvia Adams Charitable Trust, finds that the majority of families eligible for 30 hours of funded childcare [70%] are in the top half of earners, while the poorest families can access only 15 hours. Just 13% of eligible families are in the bottom third of the income distribution.

According to the government policy, all three- and four-year-olds in England are entitled to 15 hours of early education and childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year. Since 2017, working parents can access an additional 15 hours if they earn at least the National Minimum Wage or Living Wage for 16 hours a week on average. In two-parent families both parents must earn this amount or more. There is a salary cap for eligibility, but this only comes into effect if either or both parent earns over £100,000, meaning two parents could have a combined income of £199,998 and still be eligible.

The report found that not being able to receive early years childcare significantly impacts children’s chances later on in life. The poorest children are already 11 months behind their peers when they start at primary school, with a gap that has been widening in recent years, but Sutton Trust believes that quality early years education and childcare can reverse this. 

Universal access to early years childcare

In the aftermath of Covid, the Sutton Trust is proposing a model for universal access to funded early years education. In a survey of primary school leaders conducted by TeacherTapp for the report over half think fewer pupils were “school ready” this year. At schools with the most deprived intakes this was 67%.

Another survey for the report of early years providers, carried out by the Early Years Alliance, found that they welcomed additional hours for more children, but it was universally felt that this would only be feasible if funding levels per hour were increased. Some argued that this additional funding could be offered through an increase to the early years pupil premium, to incentivise settings to offer places to more disadvantaged children or children with additional needs.

If funding was provided at a level to meet their costs, almost 80% of early years settings surveyed would favour extending the current offer to disadvantaged children, with 40% supporting making the 30-hour entitlement universal to all children.

According to economic modelling by the Institute for Fiscal Studies extending the 30 hours of free early years childcare and education to those most disadvantaged families eligible for free childcare for two year olds would cost an extra £165m a year by 2024-25,  if hourly funding rates remain frozen in cash terms. 

A universal entitlement for all three- and four-year-olds could cost £250 million under a central scenario of take-up rates. These central estimates mean a 9% increase in spending on the three and four year old entitlements would extend eligibility for the 30 hour entitlement to 80% of children in the bottom third of the earnings distribution for the first time.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of the Sutton Trust and chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “As today’s research shows, a small increase in spending (9%) could widen access to early education. But expanding access must go hand in hand with improving quality, which is also key for making a lasting impact on children’s life chances.”

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