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 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 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 three- and 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”.
“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,” he said.
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 the 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.
Children from low-income families “stand to benefit most from early years provision, but they don’t have equal access to it, and the education they receive is more likely to be of lower quality,” said Sir Peter Lampl, the founder of the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation.
By the time they reach school, they are “well behind their better-off peers”, he said. “Treating early years education just as childcare is storing up problems for the future and putting a brake on social mobility.”
The research by the New Economics Foundation also found that investing in childcare for poorer children could have positive economic benefits for the Treasury.
For every pound the government borrows and invests into early years education for poorer children, researchers estimate the Treasury would receive £2.07 back in tax revenue over the course of their lifetime, as opposed to £1.19 from investing in middle-income families and a loss of 33p when investing in high-income households.
Experts are warning that the government’s planned childcare expansion is undeliverable, with anxious nursery managers saying they may offer a limited number of funded places and that a mass exodus of childminders and nursery staff risks undermining the expansion. A report published recently by the Early Education and Childcare Coalition calculated the sector could need up to 100,000 new workers if those intending to leave the profession within one year went through with their plan.
A Department for Education spokesperson said it was providing targeted support for the early years sector including training, qualifications and an online child development course.
A spokesperson said: “This government is rolling out the single biggest investment in childcare in England’s history, and we are confident in the strength of our childcare market to deliver 30 free hours of childcare for working parents from nine months old up to when they start school.”
William Turner is a seasoned U.K. correspondent with a deep understanding of domestic affairs. With a passion for British politics and culture, he provides insightful analysis and comprehensive coverage of events within the United Kingdom.