Last reviewed 21 October 2021

A new report by the Nuffield Foundation has found that a “dysfunctional” approach to early years policy has resulted in a complex and confusing system that does not meet the needs of families.

The early years sector has grown exponentially over the last 25 years but the report finds this expansion has been piecemeal, as policy implemented by successive governments has prioritised different objectives at different times. 

The complexity of multiple early years entitlements with different eligibility criteria and the ways in which these are implemented locally has also led to confusion for parents, resulting in schemes such as such Tax-Free Childcare being under-utilised.

The report, The role of early childhood education and care in shaping life chances, highlights that there is a lack of both a national long-term strategy and sufficient investment to improve qualification levels and develop the workforce. It states that recognition of the value of early childhood education and care is not matched by the rewards for those working in the system, and this is leading to a rise in staff turnover.

The research also suggests that the shift in policy towards expanding childcare for working parents in recent years is inadvertently widening the disadvantage gap as low income families are not eligible to take up the 30-hour childcare offer.

The report is calling for a whole-system review of early childhood education and care, to inform a new strategy designed to deliver quality of provision for children, affordability for parents, improved training and pay for the workforce, and which makes a difference to the lives of disadvantaged children. 

Carey Oppenheim, Early Childhood Lead at the Nuffield Foundation and co-author of the report, said:

“We have moved from very limited provision of early childhood education and care in the mid-1990s to the current situation where the vast majority of children under five attend some formal provision. This is a remarkable shift that has seen the development of a nationwide infrastructure on which many children and parents depend, but the system is dysfunctional. It is not working for children in terms of quality of provision, for parents in terms of access and affordability, for the workforce on pay and training, or for providers on sustainability.”

“We need a wholesale review of the purpose and provision of early childhood education and care that provides clarity on who and what it is for and how it can make a difference to disadvantaged children in particular. Such a review also needs to consider the fairest and most sustainable funding model and how the people providing care can be appropriately skilled and remunerated.”