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The UK Government provides support to families in England for Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) costs. It does this by funding early education and childcare places in regulated ECEC settings (‘entitlements’) and through subsidies in the tax and benefit systems, including tax free childcare, Universal Credit and tax credits (see Commons Library briefing on Childcare: support with costs). Education is devolved and there are different policies in the devolved Nations.

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) funds three entitlements.

  • Universal Entitlement. Since 2010, it provides 15 hours per week (38 weeks a year) to all 3- and 4-year olds. In January 2020, take-up was 93%, unchanged from 2019. This includes 4-year-olds in a reception place.
  • Disadvantaged Entitlement. Introduced in 2013, it provides 15 hours per week (38 weeks a year) of free ECEC to certain 2-year olds, including where families qualify for specified benefits, the child has an Education, Health and Care Plan or is ‘Looked After’. In January 2020, take up was 69%, up from 68% in 2019.
  • Extended Entitlement. Introduced in 2017, it provides an additional 15 hours per week (38 weeks a year) to 3- and 4-year olds of eligible working parents. Taken with the universal entitlement, this totals 30 hours per week. In January 2020, take-up was up 5% from January 2019.

The aims of these are to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children, promote school readiness and improve employment rates. In 2019-20, DfE distributed around £3.5 billion to Local Authorities for the entitlements.

Regulated ECEC settings include private and public providers. In 2019 in England, 1.7 million ECEC places for children (0 – 4 years) were offered by 72,000 private, voluntary and independent (PVI) providers and public (maintained) nurseries. National statistics show that between 2018 and 2020, the majority of 4 year olds accessed their funded entitlements in the maintained sector, such as a reception class (approximately four fifths). In contrast, the majority of 2 year olds (more than four fifths) and 3 year olds (approximately two thirds) accessed their funded entitlement in the PVI sector.

Key points

  • In England, the best available evidence indicates that some use of high-quality ECEC is beneficial from age 3 for all children and from age 2 for disadvantaged children. There are limited data on children aged 0-2.
  • Positive outcomes are strongly associated with the quality of ECEC and the child’s home learning environment, and, to a lesser extent, the quantity of ECEC.
  • The quality of ECEC in England has improved over the last decade, but it is lower in deprived areas. Many stakeholders consider that some Government policies prioritise quantity over quality of ECEC and that this is widening the disadvantage gap.
  • Stakeholders consider key policy priorities to be effectively coordinating early years policies, improving parental engagement and uptake of the funded entitlements, and supporting the ECEC sector to provide high-quality ECEC in a sustainable manner.


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer-reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Dr Nathan Archer, The Nuffield Foundation*

Laura Barbour, The Sutton Trust*

Dr Jo Blanden, University of Surrey*

The Rt Hon. the Lord Blunkett of Brightside and Hillsborough

Dr Sara Bonetti, Education Policy Institute*

Dr Tammy Campbell, The London School of Economics*

Dr Claire Crawford, UCL Institute of Education*

Dr Catherine Davies, University of Leeds*

Department for Education*

Professor Helen Dodd, University of Exeter

Helen Donohoe, Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY)*

Naomi Eisenstadt, Chair of Northamptonshire Health & Care Partnership*

Dr Julian Grenier, Sheringham Nursery School & Children’s Centre and the East London Research School

Dr Sandra Mathers, University of Oxford

Professor Edward Melhuish, University of Oxford*

Emeritus Professor Peter Moss, UCL Institute of Education*

Dr Jackie Musgrave, Early Childhood, The Open University

Professor Chris Pascal, Centre for Research in Early Childhood*

Shannon Pite, Early Years Alliance*

Rose Porter, Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY)*

Max Stanford, Early Intervention Foundation*

Professor Kathy Sylva, University of Oxford*

Brenda Taggart, UCL Institute of Education

Members of the POST Board*

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

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