Disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds losing out on good quality nursery provision

21 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 research undertaken by the University of Oxford and published by the Nuffield Foundation.

The ‘quality gap’ between nurseries catering for the least and most advantaged three- and four-year-olds is widest (nine per cent) in relation to support for language skills. The report’s authors say this finding is particularly significant given that disadvantaged children are already almost a year behind those from wealthier backgrounds in terms of their vocabulary by the age of five, with the gap increasing 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, using 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, where quality for three- and four-year-olds was equally as good, and sometimes better, in disadvantaged areas.

The researchers suggest this difference 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 employ a graduate, and only eight per cent employ more than one. The research team compared private and voluntary providers with and without a graduate on the staff team, and found that the ‘quality gap’ between disadvantaged and more advantaged areas was much smaller in nurseries employing a graduate: three per cent as compared with ten per cent in nurseries without a graduate.

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 recommends that private and voluntary early years providers are encouraged to use this additional funding to employ a graduate-level member of staff.

The researchers also recommend continued support for state-maintained schools providing early education for disadvantaged children, including making the most of high quality nursery schools to 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 most in need of 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.”

Download 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 (PDF).