A fair start: equalising access to early education 

The Sutton Trust

Access to quality early education is unfair, with most of the country’s poorest families locked out of the government’s flagship entitlement of 30 hours of funded early education and child-care for three- and four-year-olds. In this landmark report, the 30 hours policy is examined from a variety of different angles. Using evidence and analysis from a wide variety of sources, this report has looked in detail at the case for reform, why it matters and how to deliver it.

Executive Summary 

All three- and four-year-olds in England are entitled to 15 hours of early education and childcare per week. Since 2017, ‘working families’ meeting certain eligibility requirements have been entitled to an additional 15 hours. Under the current eligibility criteria for this ‘30 hours entitlement’, it is predominantly children in better off homes who are eligible for a full-time place – 70% of those eligible are in the top half of the earnings distribution. This report examines options to reform the 30 hour entitlement to bring lower income children into eligibility. This includes a targeted expansion to disadvantaged three- and four year-olds, or making the entitlement universal.

Key Findings 

Taking an in-depth look at the issue, examining the impact of the 30 hours policy; the evidence behind the need for change; and options for reform. It also looks at the view from the ground, with polling of parents, teachers and early years providers. The findings indicate that:

  1. Extending the 30 hour entitlement to cover more three- and four-year-olds, while a substantial change in the generosity of the system, would represent a less radical change in total early years spending than the introduction of the existing extended entitlement.
  2. The estimates of the long run cost are highly uncertain and depend greatly on assumptions about take-up.
  3. A continued cash-terms freeze in per-hour spending would make it very difficult for the sector to deliver any expansion in the 30 hour entitlement.
  4. Where overall spending is constrained, policymakers face important trade-offs between expanding the free entitlement system to offer more hours to more children and protecting funding for existing entitlements.
  5. Extending the entitlement to three and four-year-olds who meet the criteria for ‘vulnerable’ children (but not universalising it) would predominantly benefit out-of-work families and those with the very lowest household earnings.
  6. 64% of parents said they have been worried about their child’s development or
    wellbeing during the pandemic.
  7. 88% of providers thought it likely they would still be open by this time next year,
    with 6% saying it was unlikely. This is a much smaller proportion than April 2020, when a quarter of providers said they were likely to close.
  8. 75% of early years teachers said a higher proportion of children did not know how
    to listen or respond to instructions than usual, 73% said more children were struggling to play or share with other children and 69% that more children were struggling to hold a pen.
  9. A large proportion of providers, 87%, said more families would take up more hours if they became eligible for the 30 hour entitlement, with two thirds (66%) saying many more would do so.
  10. The most common barrier, cited by 48% of providers unable to offer the extension, was not having enough physical space, followed by not being able to recruit enough staff (31%). Only 6% of this group of providers thought they would not have enough demand.


The report suggests that, the existing 30 hour entitlement risks worsening social mobility, by providing additional hours in early years provision to children who are already relatively better off, while missing out those who have most to gain. Increasing eligibility for funded hours of early education and childcare
could have a broad variety of benefits:
• Extending access to a more optimal number of hours of provision to poorer children who stand to benefit most.
• Giving parents greater confidence in access to childcare when retraining, moving into work, or increasing their hours.
• Allowing greater stability and predictability for settings, including lowering administrative burdens. Providers in the most deprived areas would stand to benefit the most, addressing geographical inequalities in the sector.
• If accompanied by increased funding, improving an emphasis on quality and facilitating improvements to the early years workforce.
• Closing the gap in school readiness, reducing the burden in schools and helping to ensure all children can start their formal education on an even footing, with potential long-term benefits for social mobility.

Read full report