Background to the report

Evidence has shown that high-quality early education and childcare can support children’s development and improve their outcomes. The Department for Education (DfE) funds three entitlements to free early education and childcare in England:

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  • the disadvantage entitlement: 15 hours per week for disadvantaged 2-year-olds;
  • the universal entitlement: 15 hours per week for all 3- and 4-year-olds; and
  • the extended entitlement: an additional 15 hours per week for 3- and 4-year-olds with eligible working parents.

At January 2019, nearly 150,000 2-year-olds and 1.3 million 3- and 4-year-olds were taking up the entitlements. The disadvantage entitlement is the only one of the three schemes to support disadvantaged families specifically, but the entitlements generally are part of DfE’s ambition to improve social mobility.

Content and scope of the report

In assessing value for money, we examined:

  • whether disadvantaged families are accessing the entitlements;
  • whether the supply of free early education and childcare is sufficient and high-quality in deprived areas; and
  • whether families and children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, are benefiting from the entitlements.

Where possible our assessment focused on disadvantaged families specifically and we compared their position with more advantaged families to assess variations in support; however, this disaggregation was not feasible for all the issues we covered.

Report conclusions

Nearly all families in England with young children are getting some benefit from DfE’s entitlements to free early education and childcare. Since we last reported on this topic in 2016, take-up of the universal entitlement has remained high, the extended entitlement has become established, and the overall quality of provision has improved.

DfE has had less success in making sure disadvantaged families specifically are effectively supported through the provision of the entitlements, with lower take-up and poorer-quality provision in deprived areas. This creates a risk that the gap between the development of disadvantaged children and their peers will grow rather than narrow, with a detrimental impact on DfE’s ambitions to improve social mobility. DfE therefore needs to do more to secure value for money and ensure disadvantaged families benefit at least as much as others from the entitlements.


“Families with young children across the country are benefiting from their entitlement to free early education and childcare places, which aim to prepare children for school and improve their life chances.

“However, if these entitlements are to help level the playing field, it is essential that more disadvantaged children benefit from high-quality childcare. DfE should do more to ensure that all disadvantaged families are aware of the free childcare on offer and are able to access it.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO


Publication details

Press release

View press release (13 Mar 2020)

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