Improving early education and childcare to ensure good outcomes for children

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The LGA commissioned a literature review to examine and evaluate ‘what works?’ in relation to the delivery of good quality early years provision for all children accessing the early years childcare entitlements.

About this report

This report was commissioned by the Local Government Association and produced by David Noble and Jose Diaz of the Place Group. The recommendations within the report are those of the authors, for the consideration of all those engaged in early years services. Presented here is an executive summary, the whole report which includes references can be accessed on request.

The LGA commissioned a literature review to examine and evaluate ‘what works?’ in relation to the delivery of good quality early years provision for all children accessing the early years childcare entitlements. The review provides informed recommendations for aspirational change and (re)modelling of existing programmes.

The report found that there is a majority consensus (with some degree of debate about the impact of certain structural ingredients) about how high, quality childcare can lead to enhanced outcomes for children. The report introduces several other factors and themes that were explored, including the need to enhance affordability of childcare and support for children with special educational needs.

This review reiterates a known factor, that English families from relatively disadvantaged geographic communities and ethnic communities have more obstacles in accessing high quality childcare than those who are resident in more affluent areas - thus affecting children’s outcomes. Therefore, any future funded models for early years and childcare need to work towards providing support for the ambition of reducing inequalities and contributing to ‘levelling up’.

The role of high quality childcare in ‘levelling up’

Theme 1

High Quality childcare does equate to good outcomes and ‘levelling up’

There is a consensus that high quality childcare provision does generate significant and sustained improvements to child outcomes. This occurs both via process quality and in particular structural quality, and that investment in staff qualifications is a vital ingredient for achieving high quality, as are systematic approaches to trying to ensure low child : professionals ratios.

The review highlights where councils have invested in developing models whereby quality - for example, via Quality First Teaching or a Graduated Approach - is inherent within their support to their early years and childcare sector/providers. There is some evidence to suggest that young children who spend more than 15 hours in early years settings appear to see more benefits from the presence of a graduate than those attending for fewer hours. A range of sources demonstrate how high-quality childcare helps to ensure healthy cognitive, behavioural, social and physical development.

The impact of geographic and demographic inequalities

Theme 2

There are (geographic and demographic) inequalities aligned to high quality and good outcomes. The review incorporates recent research that indicates how UK families from more disadvantaged geographic communities and those from specific ethnic minority communities have a greater incidence of obstacles in accessing high quality childcare than those in more affluent areas - thus effecting these children’s outcomes.

Therefore, any future models for quality early years and childcare need to work towards the ambition of ‘levelling up’ and need to recognise that certain local council areas and sub-local authority areas may require a greater level of funding and commitment. For example, the review cites how recent Sutton Trust research believed that improvements to quality models in settings in deprived areas (which often account for a relatively high(er) incidence of children from ethnic minority communities) ‘would likely lead to better outcomes for the less advantaged and a closing of the attainment gap’.

Qualifications and ratios

Theme 3

High level qualifications and low child : adult ratios promote quality and good outcomes.

High-level staff qualifications - and a dedication to ensuring this as a localised factor - coupled with low child-adult ratios helps to enhance quality and therefore outcomes. This is anchored to a fact that the people who work in the early years sector are key to the quality of the provision of early education and care. Therefore any future models of practice should continue to incorporate specific investment (building on the funding announced in the October 2021 Budget and Spending review, however also mindful of the raise in the level of the UK minimum wage) so that more highly qualified - up to Level 3 and over - staff can instigate systemic change, and help to overcome the inequity that was specified in Theme 2.

This review outlines how a child attending an early years childcare setting, which has graduate(s) working there and higher attainment scores, could further see their outcomes boosted if the child spends a relatively high number of hours in funded early years education.

Improving the 30 hour offer

Theme 4

The current 30 hours childcare offer model is not delivering quality as much as it potentially could or should.

There is evidence that the 30 hours childcare offer since its introduction in September 2017 has had a beneficial effect on the outcomes of certain children who are able to attend its extended hours. However, research-based evidence, including that highlighted in this review, also promotes a conclusion that the existing model for the free entitlement to 30 hours for children of working parents can disadvantage children from low-income families. This occurs by increased subsidies for early education being concentrated disproportionately on children who least need a head start - and not on those who circumstances indicates that they do. The Government could consider the costs and benefits of extending the English 30 hours entitlement to be universal, and therefore support more disadvantaged children. In doing so, the Government should also assess the extent to which the current design of the 30 hours funded childcare offer affects and ensures quality and access for disadvantaged and ethnic minority children, with the goal of redesigning the system and making it more equitable. When thinking about ‘what works?’, it is perhaps justifiable to consider ‘what could work better?’, potentially via re-envisioning a process where the 30 hours childcare offer is accessible to more children.

The maintained nursery sector and quality

Theme 5

The Maintained Nursery Sector (model) has an evidenced association with quality. This is due to Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) being delivered by more highly qualified staff in MNS than in other providers, with the majority of head teachers and Early Years coordinators qualified to at least Level 6 and the existence of a dedicated head teacher who is an Early Years specialist aids effective delivery of play-based age-appropriate education. Furthermore, MNS tend to be located in deprived areas and serve more disadvantaged children. There are however challenges and barriers facing MNS. Therefore, consideration of costed models of practice should keep in mind that a discernible incidence of evidenced higher quality in maintained nursery school and nursery classes exists in comparison to other provider types. Theme 5 and other themes raise a logical question of: how may certain changes or new models be funded?

Retargeting the tax free childcare offer

Theme 6

Theme 6 suggests that HMRC’s Tax-Free Childcare (TFC) initiative is not currently effectively helping to ensure access to quality childcare. This conclusion can be emphasised with reference to data that was released by the UK Treasury department in September 2021, which showed then that there was a £1.7 billion underspend in Tax-Free Childcare costs from 2017, which was intended to support parents with childcare costs.

A question is raised as to if this funding could be retargeted and reinvested so as to provide a more tangible and frequent route to families gaining access to quality childcare. Could the underspend and wider funding that constitutes Tax-Free Childcare be re-allocated to other parts of a high quality childcare system - prioritising the most disadvantaged children. Re-investment of the funding allocated toward the Tax-Free Childcare programme could be a viable consideration to enhance access to quality childcare to families from all geographic and demographic backgrounds, especially in a climate where tough spending decisions on how to generate quality and related outcomes pervades, including for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Outcomes for children with SEND

Theme 7

Quality and best outcomes for children with SEND are often aligned to training, specific expertise and qualifications.

The review has shown that to ensure access to high quality childcare and enhanced outcomes for children with SEND, they need to be supported and educated by workforce professionals with high-level and specialist qualifications. Nationally, there is inconsistent quality of provision that children with SEND can access, although there is evidence that a growing number of councils have decided on a graduated approach funded model towards supporting children and young people with SEND including during their early years. 

It is apparent that some potential models of refreshed new practice in terms of quality and outcomes-driven models of practice will require buy-in from all councils.

The role of councils

Theme 8

Councils have a crucial role in implementing models of practice that focus on quality.

Councils would have to continue to lead on innovation and implementation and this review has shown there is a willingness within councils to drive quality. However, there is wide variation in practice among councils and significant gaps in strategic capacity to support providers. Early years teams lack clarity about their responsibilities to support inclusion among private and voluntary early years providers. As councils are under severe funding pressures and focus on delivering clear statutory responsibilities, the lack of clarity contributes to limited support for inclusion in the early years. However, it can be concluded that councils should continue to lead on innovation, implementation and driving quality aligned to the fact that this clearly already happening - and that they should be enabled to access funding to do so.


Given the finding that high-quality childcare provision can generate significant and sustained improvements in child outcomes and the following recommendations were made:

  1. The English 30 hours childcare offer system should be reviewed in order to ensure equal access to quality and to contribute further to the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda through its eligibility criteria. 

  2. The English 30 hours childcare offer system should, again, be reviewed aligned to its ability to ensure access to quality with accountability, with such a review examining the inherent access to quality focus of the systematic delivery framework of the (August 2021 launched) Scottish 1140 model.

  3. The Government could examine options for allocated Tax-Free Childcare funding to be retargeted and reinvested so as to provide a more tangible and better used route for more families gaining equal access to quality childcare.

  4. Maintained Nursery Schools are a means to and where available, can provide access to high quality childcare, including for children with SEND and additional learning needs, and supplementary funding for investment in this type of early years childcare provision should ideally be extended, with a costed model developed as to how the provision type might viably be supported, and possibly expanded.

  5. A local council ‘childcare quality fund’ could be modelled, which would be allocated to each one based on specific demographic and socio-economic indicators - with criteria being developed for what the fund could be used for, including workforce qualifications and targeted/localised programmes to enhance quality, again from the perspective of ‘Levelling-up’.
The full report including costed models can be made available on request.