Child plays with building bricks at nursery school
Nursery schools with graduate staff were found to provide good quality provision in affluent and disadvantaged areas.
Credit: Shutterstock

The quality of preschools depends on where you live

Private and voluntary (not-for-profit) nurseries and preschools catering for disadvantaged areas and children are lower quality than those serving more advantaged areas and children, according to University of Oxford research published by the Nuffield Foundation.

The 'quality gap' between nurseries catering for the least and most advantaged three and four-year-olds is widest (9%) in relation to how they support children’s language skills. The report authors say this finding is particularly significant given that disadvantaged children at the age of five are already almost a year behind those from wealthier backgrounds in terms of their vocabulary, and the gap increases as they move through school. In other words, the children most in need of good quality early years provision are actually among the least likely to receive it.

They found that the tendency for quality to be lower in disadvantaged areas only applied to private, voluntary and independent nurseries and not to state-maintained schools. In state-maintained schools, the quality for three- and four-year-olds was equally as good and sometimes even better in disadvantaged areas.

The researchers suggest the difference in quality is related to the number of graduates working in early years settings. Whereas all school classes are led by graduate-qualified teachers, less than half of private and voluntary nurseries and preschools employ a graduate and only 8% employ more than one. The researchers found that among private and voluntary providers with a graduate on the staff, the ‘quality gap’ between nurseries in disadvantaged and advantaged areas was much smaller than in nurseries without a graduate (3% as compared with 10% in relation to support for children’s language skills, for example). They suggest that the enhanced training of graduates may help them to meet the greater needs of disadvantaged children, who are more at risk of language delays.

In light of these findings, the report recommends increasing the number of graduates working in nurseries, playgroups and preschools. The new Early Years pupil premium recently announced by the government will mean that nurseries and schools receive additional funding for each disadvantaged three and four-year-old on their register. The report suggests that this additional funding could be used by private and voluntary providers in disadvantaged areas to employ a graduate member of staff. The researchers also suggest continued support for state-maintained schools providing early education for disadvantaged children, saying that high quality nursery schools could support practice in other schools and nurseries, for example as part of the Government’s new ‘teaching schools’ initiative.

Lead author Sandra Mathers said: 'This research highlights the challenges involved in ensuring that the children who most need good quality early years provision actually receive it. It is vital that we equip nurseries and preschools with the tools and support they need to help disadvantaged children overcome the odds and reach their full potential.'

Teresa Williams, Director of Social Research and Policy at the Nuffield Foundation, said: 'These findings show that socioeconomic disadvantage is mirrored in the quality of early years provision, meaning children from poorer backgrounds lose out again. We would like to see more work done on the link between quality and graduate qualifications, specifically how we can best upskill the early years workforce and ensure that more highly qualified staff are appropriately deployed.'