A Fair Start? Sutton Trust calls on the Government to extend the 30-hour early education entitlement 

Isabella Perales

Account Director

The Sutton Trust has today published a major piece of research that sets out the case for improving access to early education for the poorest children. The pandemic is said to have widened an already significant gap in the levels of deprivation across the country 

Calling on the government to act now, for the youngest in our society, the Sutton Trust has published a comprehensive new report which examines in particular the impact of the current 30 hours policy; the evidence behind the need for change; and options for reform. It also looks at the views of parents, teachers, and early years providers.  

According to the research: 

  • Evidence suggests that the policy has contributed to a widening of the gap between the poorest children and their peers before school starts (something that’s likely been exacerbated by the pandemic).  
  • The poorest children are effectively ‘locked out’ of state funded early education opportunities at ages three and four, simply because their parents don’t earn enough.   
  • 70% of those eligible for the full 30 hours of funded early education are in the top half of earners, while just 13% of eligible families are in the bottom third of the income distribution. 


Sutton Trust is calling for 30 hours of early years education and childcare to be made available to every three- and four-year-old. They suggest doing so could have substantial benefits for social mobility and could help to close gaps before school starts. They also want to see a strong focus on the quality of provision on offer, alongside a better funding rate particularly for disadvantaged children. 

Modelling by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has looked at the potential costs of different options to bring the poorest children into eligibility. They estimated that bringing in a universal entitlement of 30 hours of early years education and childcare for all three- and four-year olds would cost around £250m a year in a central scenario.  

The government spend a vast amount on funding the early years entitlement, but calls from the sector in recent years have demonstrated that this isn’t enough, and more support and funding is needed to support the children, and staff, who make up this crucial part of the education sector.   

Sutton Trust’s report is accompanied by the launch of their  ‘A Fair Start?’ campaign to give poorer children the same access to early years education as their richer peers.  

Alongside calls from across the sector, the Sutton Trust’s campaign has identified that it is essential any expansion, and the additional funding going to providers along with it, drives up quality in early education, which is most likely to improve children’s outcomes and school readiness.  

To qualify for the extension, Sutton Trust believes that providers should be required to meet certain evidence-based quality criteria, for example employing a graduate leader in their setting, employing a certain proportion of staff qualified to Level 3 (A level or equivalent), and providing professional development opportunities to their workforce.   

In response to the report, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said:  

“We know that high-quality early years provision can play a huge role in narrowing the gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers, and so clearly there is a strong argument to be made for widening access to the current 30 hours offer.  

“However, as this research shows, the majority of nurseries, pre-schools and childminders would only support such changes to the 30-hours policy if they are adequately funded to deliver it. The harsh reality is that for many, any extension of the scheme at current rates of funding is simply unfeasible.  

“If the government is genuinely committed to improving the life chances of all children, then clearly it needs to invest in the sector that is proven to have the biggest impact on long-term learning and development: the early years.”  

As the Early Years Alliance have said for many years, in order to improve the attainment gap for children we must ensure the funding and resources are available to train and pay early years educators to the necessary standard to provide excellent provision.  

This change must start with an overall recognition of the essential need for the sector to be highly skilled, beginning with the government prioritising early years, and heading the calls made by the Sutton Trust today.  

The full report from the Sutton Trust can be found here 

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