Written evidence from the British Association for Early Childhood Education (CPM0007)


Early Education is a national charity which has been campaigning since 1923 for all children to have access to high quality early education, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, to whom it makes the greatest difference. We are also a membership organisation with members across the UK in maintained, private, voluntary and independent sector providers, homebased childcare, local authorities, colleges and universities, and seek to raise the quality of early childhood education through professional development activities and resources.


We are responding in relation to the issue of joint working, in particular between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. 


From the point of view of early education and childcare providers, there is little evidence of joined up working between these departments to address child poverty.  Early education providers frequently act as a safety net for children and families in poverty who are falling through gaps in other services, but this is not a formal part of their role and they receive no funding or access to staff training for it.  Yet because children are coming through their doors on a daily basis and cannot learn if they are suffering the effects of poverty such as cold, hunger and lack of sleep due to poor housing, early years providers and schools frequently have no choice but to take on a role in signposting families to support services and directly delivering support themselves. 


The case for joined-up early years services

The relationships early years providers build with parents through regular contact can be key in building trust in a way that other public services may struggle to achieve.  This is one reason why locating children’s centres in schools and early years provision is particularly successful.  Where services are co-located or early years staff have frequent contact with other services such as health, social services and housing, early years staff are better able to intervene early, signpost and refer families, and work jointly with other professionals to find solutions. However, this support is time consuming and needs to be properly built into the job, with appropriate training and funding for the additional work hours needed.  At present this does not happen.


Maintained nursery schools are particularly successful at doing this as many of them do, or did, also run children’s centres.  They provide excellent case studies of the effectiveness of well-qualified and experienced early years practitioners in supporting families.  There is evidence that many are doing so as a hidden subsidy to other services.[1]  This is jeopardised by a narrow approach to funding early education only in relation to educational outcomes in the absence of a joined-up approach to achieving wider governmental agendas.


Addressing effects instead of causes

The funding which providers receive for more economically disadvantaged children – for example Early Years Pupil Premium – is intended to address educational outcomes, not poverty as a root cause of underachievement.  For example, the vast majority of children qualifying for funded early education entitlements do not have access to free school meals, as these are only available to children in Reception, or to those with a full-day nursery place in a school.  There is increasing use by settings of schools of referrals to foodbanks and voluntary sources of support to directly address the needs of families in poverty – as we set out in detail in the next section.


Education – and early years education in particular - is seen as a way to support social mobility, which may improve children’s life chances in the longer term.  However, it does not address the impacts of poverty in the short term, and for that reason government must have a strategy in place to address poverty in the here and now.  Every child should have access to a warm, safe home, food, clothing and the essentials for healthy development, including access to education.


A cross-government child poverty strategy would encourage more joined up cross-departmental working.  In turn this should filter down to provide more joined-up policy making, better use of resources at the front line and a more integrated and seamless experience for families in poverty, who are often least able to navigate complex and bureaucratic systems.


Examples of how early years settings provide practical support for families in poverty

In June 2019, in response to the growing concerns of its membership related to children and their families living in poverty, Early Education surveyed its members to tell us what they were doing in their settings which might be described as beyond their expected work around children’s learning and development.  The survey asked the following questions:

Ninety-one responses were received from settings (4 in Scotland and 87 in England) mostly in the form of open text. Respondents worked in the following settings:

Maintained Nursery School 38 (42%);

Primary School 21 (23%);

Private Day Nursery  10 (11%);

Special School  3 (3%)

Voluntary Sector Nursery 10 (11%);

Other settings  9 (10%) After School Club, Charitable Pre-school, Children's Centre

Nursery, Montessori school & nursery, Pre-school, Private school, Private, Community Sessional Nursery, Stay and play.

There were no responses from Childminders.

Fifty-three regions and local authorities were represented in responses. They were:

Aberdeenshire, Bath and North East Somerset, Bedfordshire, Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Bradford East, Brighton and Hove, Bristol, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire West & Chester, City of Edinburgh, Cornwall, County Durham, Derbyshire, Enfield, Gloucestershire, Greenwich, Hackney, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Islington, Lancashire,  London, London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, London Borough of Sutton, Luton, Tower Hamlets, Milton Keynes, Newham, Norfolk, North Somerset, North West, North Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Perth and Kinross, Royal Greenwich, Sefton, Sheffield, Solihull, Southampton, Southwark, Surrey, Sutton, Telford and Wrekin, Tower Hamlets, Uttlesford, Wakefield, Warwickshire, West Berkshire, West Sussex, Wiltshire.

Key findings

Findings showed what was happening on the ground, in practical terms to relieve the effects of poverty on young children and their families. Responses showed that settings were responding actively to offer practical and financial support to parents to provide food, household equipment, and additional services:









How early settings provide extra support for children and families in poverty

Early childhood educators take on a great responsibility and, given that we know high quality provision for the youngest children can make such a positive difference to the life changes of young children this becomes a moral duty as well as a clear economic responsibility of government to resource such provision.

In many settings the effects of poverty are only too clear, and staff are confronted with the immediate needs of young children and their families. Hungry, tired and frightened children cannot learn. The impact of poverty on children’s lives is something that cannot be ignored by early years settings and settings are adapting their role to meet such needs. Combatting the inequalities of poverty requires commitment at the highest political level, so that whilst their young children attend high quality provision, they and their families - at the same time – are not hungry, cold, homeless, ill, or depressed.   Tackling inequalities needs investment, employment, and real living wages and this requires political commitment and a joined-up approach at policy level as well as practical initiatives between and across departments and agencies.



It is clear that many settings provide a range of support, financial, practical and involving other services, to address the impact of poverty on the lives of many children and their families.


Support for families relating to several areas of need:


Additional time and full-time places for children:


Practical support


Providing clothing, equipment and enrichment activities for children


Funding efforts

One respondent reported: “We set up our own charity to help families in need in our city. Last year we estimate we saved the local authority £185K - meeting court and care costs with families kept together.“


Domestic violence






Family support


Disabled children and their families


Multiagency working to relieve poverty and related difficulties


COVID-19 and poverty

Many settings have responded to the current Pandemic by staying open for children in government identified categories, with their staff becoming "critical workers" overnight. In addition to providing for children still attending and supporting home learning for those staying at home, settings have been supporting families whose incomes and well-being have plummeted due to government action on COVID 19.


It is now not at all unusual to find early years settings where staff are working not only to support the learning and development of young children, but also to support families with housing, food, benefit claims and child and maternal health needs.


In our survey of our members in April 2020, the two greatest concerns were the impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable children and families, and the financial impact on families. 


Although vulnerable children were eligible to continue attending settings throughout the pandemic, many have not done so.  Staff have tried to keep in touch with them remotely, but the loss of regular face to face contact has meant that it has been harder to provide support, and some families have dropped out of contact.  Meanwhile, others who have faced challenges such as loss of employment, financial difficulties or bereavement, may not have been identified as newly vulnerable. 


Financial challenges have increased, and with younger children not eligible for free school meal (FSM) support, there have been concerns that these children have not had the same safety net as older children, despite those on the 2-year-old offer or receiving Early Years Pupil Premium having similar profiles to older children receiving FSM support. 


Members reported families struggling to access Universal Credit or waiting for payments to arrive, with particular concern about families with no recourse to public funds and those on zero hours contracts.  Some providers continued to find ways to provide food for families from food banks or paid for by staff, but they asked where was the government support that was needed.


The pandemic has highlighted the critical role that Early Years settings and services play in supporting families and their young children. It raises questions as to why they are being asked to step in and stop families from falling through the cracks in the welfare state.  We know this is happening throughout the education sector. 


As we go forward, early years settings, including maintained nursery schools need to be properly resourced to continue supporting our most vulnerable children, and government needs to take a stronger role in eradicating poverty, through funded collaborative working and addressing the reasons why so many families do not have the income they need to give their children the basics.



February 2021


[1] The unique and added value of Birmingham's maintained nursery schools, May 2019
A report from seven Yorkshire and Lincolnshire maintained nursery schools on the "hidden benefits" of maintained nursery schools.