Our research has found that around 40 per cent of the disadvantage gap at age 16 is already evident by age 5, with disadvantaged children being, on average, over 4 months behind their more affluent peers. For more vulnerable children the gap is even more stark: children with SEND without a statement or Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP), and therefore likely considered as having less acute needs, are almost 10 months behind their peers by age 5.
The biggest single influence on a child’s development is their parental background and associated home environment, one of the areas of education policy hardest to impact directly. A high-quality early years education is a vital tool in starting to close the gap.
The Conservative party policy is notable for its lack of detail on any of the priorities facing the early years. Unlike any of the other parties, it commits to an expansion of school-aged childcare. The Conservative party’s approach appears to be driven largely by childcare and cost of living motivations, although as the government’s own evaluation of the 30 hour entitlement pilot found, a childcare-based approach to provision for under-fives appears to have an impact on increasing working hours but only a small effect on overall unemployment rates. The Conservative Party’s lack of reference to building a high-quality workforce, introducing a more progressive entitlement system and increasing funding rates raises questions over the stability and sustainability of the early years sector and suggests that their policies in this area will do little to close the existing gaps.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats propose significant reform to both early years entitlements and funding, and would bring early years spending per child close to (or higher than, in the case of the Liberal Democrats) school spending.
Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties also recognise the importance of upskilling the early years workforce. However, both parties have very ambitious and expensive plans which rely not only on securing the resource, but also the capacity of the sector, to build and sustain a better qualified workforce. If delivered, plans to upskill the workforce and to make entitlements universal and not contingent on work status are likely to help to narrow the disadvantage gap at age 5. Making provision for three and four-year olds universal could also reduce the regressive nature of the current system; making the two-year-old entitlement universal may increase take-up rates among disadvantaged children. The Liberal Democrat policy to deliver only free provision for children under two years to those in families where both parents work may provide some help as a cost of living policy, but it is unlikely to target spending towards children who have the greatest development need.
The Green Party’s only proposal in this area is to increase the free entitlement to 35 hours from the age of nine months. Without further detail of how this would be delivered, the impact of this policy is unclear.
The Brexit Party has made no commitment to changing policies in the early years.
 Department for Education, ‘Evaluation of the first year of the national rollout of 30 hours free childcare’, (September 2018)
 W. Steven Barnett ‘Universal and Targeted Approaches to Preschool Education in the United States’, (February 2015)
 Jo Hutchinson et al, ‘Education in England: Annual Report 2019’, (July 2019)
You can download the full analysis of this priority here.