The expansion of free part-time early education is at the heart of the government’s childcare reforms, responding to strong evidence that early education promotes the cognitive, social and emotional development of young children.
At a national level, engagement is high; 94% of all 3 and 4 year olds receive early education and this has been stable since 2011. Take-up of the more recently established entitlement for disadvantaged 2 year olds has been rising and has now reached 72% of those eligible.
Given the benefits of early education, there is reason to be concerned that some children are still missing out. The markedly lower take-up rates in London (84% for 3 and 4 year olds and 61% for 2 year olds) prompted new research - funded by the Department for Education - to investigate why take-up is lower in the capital than other cities in England and to inform strategies for improvement. The National Centre for Social Research carried out a rapid evidence review, secondary analysis of area level data and qualitative research with Local Authorities (LAs), childcare providers and parents to encompass different perspectives.
The results show that supply and demand side factors are both important in explaining why some children don’t receive early education. This article looks at the interaction between provision, parental attitudes and perceived constraints of taking up early education entitlements.
London faces particular challenges in relation to supplying sufficient places to meet the needs of all eligible children resulting from high property and staff costs, lack of space to expand premises in the capital and variation in funding rates. Financial difficulties and challenges in offering the funded entitlement were reported in areas that received lower funding for 2 year olds places than for 3 and 4 year old places or that experienced a marked shift from places paid for at market rate by parents to funded entitlement places. These reasons may help to explain why other cities such as Manchester can match or exceed national take-up rates when London does not.
The perceived availability and suitability of early education also influence parents’ attitudes. Indeed, a particular contribution of this study was to capture the voice of parents who were eligible but not taking up funded places for their children, providing a more nuanced understanding of ‘personal preference’ – the explanation commonly provided by survey research. ‘Non take-up’ reflects active choice as well as perceived constraint. Some parents expressed a choice to care for children themselves, sometimes for the purpose of embedding cultural or religious identity. Others who were positive about formal early education were held back from registering by concerns about hidden costs and top-up fees, the quality of provision, and finding a nursery place that fit within the jigsaw of family life and work patterns in terms of location and hours.
Although awareness of the funded entitlements was generally high among parents, the study revealed pockets of information gaps, confusion over eligibility criteria and communication barriers for some families that restricted the take-up of early education. Multivariate analysis of area-level characteristics carried out for this study identified higher prevalence of English as an Additional Language (EAL) and ethnicity as important determinants of lower take-up, suggesting a combination of cultural and communication barriers. The average proportion of children with EAL across London boroughs (49%) was more than twice that of the national average (23%). Higher population mobility within an area was also independently associated with lower take-up, which may also help to explain the lower take-up rates in London.
Local authorities and providers are actively engaged in targeting potentially eligible parents to improve awareness and address attitudinal and practical barriers, backed by considerable funding. It was evident, however, that these efforts need to be continual as new families become eligible or move into the area, and to reach more deeply into culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
This study provided a snapshot of take-up within a shifting landscape that has been affected by changes to early years funding, the introduction of extended hours for children of working parents and rising demand. Among the interacting factors affecting take-up rates, the attitudes and perceived constraints expressed by parents emerged as particularly important for shaping the engagement strategies of local authorities and providers. The findings suggest that while some parents make an active choice to begin formal education when their child is older, there is some scope to increase take-up rates by raising awareness across all communities and explaining the benefits of early education. The voice of parents also highlights the need for simplicity in eligibility criteria and access to early education to ensure that child development and parental employment are both supported.