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Children from poorer families less likely to take up free pre-school place, study finds

June 13, 2018
Eleanor Busby
The Independent

Children from poorer backgrounds are a third less likely to take up free places in pre-school education, which can help boost their life chances, compared to one in six of their higher-income peers, research by London School of Economics (LSE) shows.

The largest gap in take-up between disadvantaged families and higher-income families are in areas of the country where early years provision is mostly in the private sector, researchers found.

Meanwhile, the gap is much smaller in areas where there are more Sure Start Children’s Centres or school nurseries – which do not charge parents additional fees for “extras”, the study found.

Author Dr Tammy Campbell said: “[It] suggests that extra fees – for example for registration or lunch – can act as a barrier for families who cannot afford large one-off or regular extra payments.”

“So it seems that part of the gap in access may be explained by the fact that ‘free’ early education is often not actually free, in practice,” she told The Independent.

Poor children who claim free school meals are 13 percentage points less likely to attend their full five terms of free pre-school education than children from higher-income families, the study finds.

In addition, families of children who speak English as an additional language were nearly three times more likely not to take up their full five terms as children who speak English at home.

A complicated market of providers across the country – as well as “non-transparent” waiting lists – can be “far from straightforward” for parents with fewer resources, Dr Campbell said.

The researchers said the findings were “concerning” as good quality nursery provision can make a difference in closing the gap between disadvantaged children and their more privileged peers.