Funded by the Nuffield Foundation
There are at least eight different programmes, across three government departments, aimed at supporting and subsidising early childhood education and care in England.
The free entitlement offer in England
The largest group of programmes – and the one most recognisably aimed at early education – is the trio of ‘free entitlements’ to funded early education and childcare places, paid for by the Department for Education:
- The universal entitlement offers all 3- and 4-year-olds a part-time (15-hour) place for 38 weeks of the year.
- The extended entitlement, introduced in 2017, offers an additional 15 hours a week of childcare to 3- and 4-year-olds in working families.
- The 2-year-old offer, introduced in its current form in 2014, provides the roughly 40% most disadvantaged children with a part-time early education place, again for 38 weeks a year.
The March 2023 Budget announced further reforms to expand the free entitlement to cover children from 9 months onwards in working families. These reforms will be phased in over the next three years:
- From April 2024, 2-year-olds in working families will get access to 15 hours a week of funded childcare
- From September 2024, the 15-hour offer will be extended to cover children in working families from 9 months to 2 years
- Finally, in September 2025 the entitlement will be doubled to 30 hours a week, 38 weeks of the year.
Total spending on the free entitlement
The 2023 Budget reforms are the latest step in establishing early education and childcare as the newest branch of the welfare state. Total spending on the free entitlement doubled during the 2000s, and then more than doubled again during the 2010s. In today’s prices, total spending peaked at £4.2 billion in 2018–19, before falling back slightly to £4 billion last year. The Budget reforms, when fully implemented, will see spending double yet again to reach just over £8 billion by 2027-28.
This rapid growth in total spending reflects a choice to prioritise the free entitlement during a period when overall education spending – and spending on many other areas of public services – was falling.