Disadvantaged 3 and 4-year-olds lose out on good quality nursery provision

28 May 2014

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.

The study, led by Sandra Mathers, analysed data on 1,079 private, voluntary (non-profit) and independent nurseries and 169 state-maintained nursery and primary schools in England. The researchers used Ofsted grades and the research-validated Early Childhood Environment Rating Scales (ECERS), which provide more detail on specific aspects of quality and are known to predict child outcomes. 

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.’

For more information, contact the University of Oxford News Office on +44 (0)1865 280534 or email: [email protected]

Notes to Editors:

  • The report, ‘Quality and Inequality: Do three- and four-year-olds in deprived areas experience lower quality early years provision?’, by Sandra Mathers and Rebecca Smees is available to download from: http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/sites/default/files/files/Quality_inequality_childcare_mathers_29_05_14.pdf
  • Since 2004, all three- and four-year-olds have been entitled to a free early education place, which can be taken up within a maintained school or within the private, voluntary and independent sector. The current entitlement is 15 hours per week. Take up is high, with 98% of four-year-olds and 94% of three-year-olds accessing some kind of funded early education. Of these, 40% attend PVI settings (private, voluntary and independent nurseries), and 59% attend a state-maintained school. In the most deprived areas, the proportion attending PVI settings is lower (27%) and the corresponding proportion of children attending state-maintained schools higher (69%).
  • The study used Ofsted grades from the 2008-2012 inspections and the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scales (ECERS-R and ECERS-E) to measure quality. Deprivation was measured using the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) 2010. In contrast to the broad measure provided by Ofsted grades, the ECERS scales provide a detailed measure of quality as experienced by children, based on observation of practice. There are ten subscales: space and furnishings, personal care routines, language and reasoning, activities, interactions, programme structure, literacy, maths, science and diversity.
  • Sandra Mathers’s research is strongly policy-focused, and she has been Principal Investigator on a number of large-scale government evaluations of early childhood initiatives. She is a senior researcher based in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. See: http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/about-us/directory/sandra-mathers/
  • The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social well-being in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at www.nuffieldfoundation.org