Fears childcare expansion rules ‘will only exacerbate inequality’
Carmen Aguilar García Alexandra Topping
Richer families in England are almost six times as likely to benefit from the government’s childcare expansion as low-income families, research has revealed. Experts have warned that poorer children will be “denied access” to early years education because their parents do not meet the government’s eligibility criteria, which states that both parents must work at least 16 hours a week. A new report argues that children of low-income households where one or both parents do not work because of issues including ill health, caring responsibilities or lack of job opportunity or security, would benefit most from childcare but are being shut out from it, which will exacerbate existing inequality. Researchers estimate that as many as 1 million children could be left out of the expansion because of their parents’ working situation. The New Economics Foundation thinktank found that only 12% of poorer families will have access to the full 30 hours of free childcare scheme from September 2025, compared with 68% of families in the top 30% of earners in England. Some low-income families receiving benefits can currently get 15 hours a week of childcare in term time when their child turns two, and all threeand four-year-olds can get 15 hours of childcare regardless of the income or working status of their parent or carer, and 30 hours if they meet the work criteria. The government is expanding the 30 hours of free childcare scheme to all eligible children of working parents aged between nine months and two years by September 2025. Lee Elliot Major, a professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said the government’s childcare plan was “a missed opportunity to provide high-quality educational support for under-resourced children”. He added: “The fear is that this will only exacerbate stark education divides during the early years – making it even harder for schools to tackle inequalities from the moment children enter the classroom.” The head of social policy at the New Economics Foundation and lead author of the study, Tom Pollard, said the government was “prioritising parents’ working status over children’s needs”, resulting in “children from low-income households being denied access to vital early years education”. Making childcare accessible for everyone would “improve the life chances of low-income children and, in the process, create widespread economic benefits”, including jobs in poorer areas of the country, he said. The study, A Fair Start for All: A Universal Basic Services Approach to Early Education and Care, also found that low-income families would struggle to find a place even if they received the full 30 free hours offer, because of lower provision in the more deprived areas in England. Increasing the number of places across the country to match the levels of the best-served local authorities would create up to 120,000 jobs, according to the research. The Department for Education said the government was “rolling out the single biggest investment in childcare in England’s history”.