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Ofsted calls for unspent millions to benefit two-year-olds

New report says that last year around 80,000 eligible children did nottake up their free place at an early years setting.

Tens of thousands of disadvantaged 2-year-olds are not benefiting from the free early education they are entitled to, an Ofsted survey has found.

Since Ofsted last reported on this issue in June 2015, there has been a 10% increase in the number of 2-year-olds from low income families taking up the government’s offer of free early education. However, last year around 80,000 eligible children still did not take up their free place at an early years setting. That equates to one third of all eligible children in England and means that a potential investment of more than £200 million failed to reach the poorest children for whom it was intended.

Today’s report was commissioned by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw to provide a better understanding of how local authorities, schools and registered early years providers are tackling the issue of disadvantage for children in the most deprived communities.

Local authorities are charged with improving outcomes for all young children in their area, reducing inequalities, and ensuring there is sufficient, high-quality early years provision and childcare for parents locally.

As well as funded places for disadvantaged 2-year-olds, the government has introduced the early years pupil premium for poorer 3- and 4-year olds. Local authorities are also responsible for checking which children in their area are eligible for these funding streams and for directing the money to early years providers in their area.

The quality of early education has never been better: 86% of early years settings were judged good or outstanding at their last Ofsted inspection. However, almost half of all disadvantaged children still do not have the essential knowledge, skills and understanding expected of their age group by the time they finish Reception. Today’s report finds that one reason for this is because in many deprived areas, children are less likely to have access to high quality early education.

In the most prosperous areas, only 8% of children are in early years provision that is less than good. For children living in the most deprived areas, this figure more than doubles to 18%.

In a commentary published alongside the report, HM Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said:

It is clear from our survey that some local authorities, schools and early years settings are making effective use of the funding available to them to give poorer children the good start they so desperately need. Strong leaders at the town hall level, as well as in individual schools and settings, are demonstrably strategic, innovative and committed to making a difference.

However, there was a discernible lack of such ambition in a number of the local authorities we visited. Any potential for improving the prospects of the most disadvantaged young children was too often thwarted by weak leadership, ineffective managerial oversight, duplication and inefficiency. In these councils, government funding was not being used in a sufficiently targeted, co-ordinated way to make a difference.

It is clear from our findings that action is needed on a national and local level to address these variations and to ensure the weakest places learn from the best. Early education has the potential to drive social mobility and improve outcomes for the next generation. We should not let them down.

Gill Jones, Ofsted Early Education Deputy Director, said:

Our survey found many examples of early years settings providing rich experiences for poorer children.

However, it is clear that young children from poorer backgrounds often do not get the support to which they are entitled. I want all early years settings to make sure that key information is shared promptly at the point of transition, so that the needs of children from poorer families are known quickly. Many early years settings are making effective use of the early years pupil premium, but I want all of them to ensure that this additional support is focused on improving the areas of development which help children catch up.

Ofsted’s report recommends that:

  • schools, early years settings and childminders ensure key information, including early assessments, is shared promptly at points of transition, so that the needs of the most disadvantaged children are identified quickly

  • schools, early years settings and childminders should also review their use of the early years pupil premium to ensure support is focused on the areas of development that will help a child to catch up

  • local authorities should publish their strategy for meeting the needs of disadvantaged children, so that families are clear about the support available to them

  • local authorities should work with schools and early years settings to ensure there are sufficient high-quality places available for disadvantaged children and increase the proportion of eligible children who take up the 2-year-old offer

  • local authorities should ensure that a child’s health and development checks at age two are completed as a crucial first assessment of their needs, and used as a benchmark for progress across their early education

  • local authorities should improve information-sharing protocols so that professionals across children’s services have easy access to a range of data and can provide timely, effective support

  • the Department for Education (DfE) should review how local authorities are held accountable for their services to disadvantaged children, ensuring that ‘school readiness’ at the end of Reception is clearly defined and used as a measure of each local area’s success

  • the DfE should provide a common definition for ‘disadvantage’, to support a coherent approach to improving the life chances of poorer children and families

  • the DfE should require schools and other settings to publish information about the impact of the early years pupil premium on their websites

  • the DfE should align the different early years funding streams for disadvantaged children and families so that parents only need to complete one application for continuous funding until a child reaches the end of the Reception year

For its part, Ofsted will ensure that the impact of additional funding on children’s health, learning and development is reported clearly and consistently, including the impact of funding for eligible Nursery and Reception children in schools.

The findings of today’s report will be discussed at a meeting of early years leaders in London this morning.