Children in the poorest areas of the country are receiving significantly lower-quality childcare than those in wealthier places, a damning report will reveal.
Research by the think tank Policy Exchange, to be published later this month, has discovered that 79 per cent of childminders and nurseries in better-off neighbourhoods were judged by Ofsted to be "good" or "outstanding", compared with 64 per cent within the most deprived areas.
The research also reveals a gap between the educational development of children in rich and poor areas as they prepare to start school. The qualifications of childminders and nursery workers are lower in the most disadvantaged areas, while the vocabulary development of the poorest children is 16 months behind those from the highest-income families, the report says.
Lower-income families base their choice of where to send their child on cost alone, while middle-class parents prioritise quality – showing that it is wealthier families who are getting the best out of the childcare system.
Policy Exchange said the huge discrepancies in childcare provision highlighted the need for the brightest and most inspirational graduates to be sent to work in nurseries in the most deprived areas under a form of "Teach First" for childcare. Councils should be required to publish quality league tables for childminders and nurseries in their areas so that parents can be better informed about where they are sending their children.
The report's author, Harriet Waldegrave, said children in poor neighbourhoods needed high-quality provision the most. She added: "Many women, especially those in lower-income households, want or need to work after the birth of children but the lack of high-quality, affordable childcare is preventing them from doing so.
"Early-years education will only have a positive impact on a child's development if it is of a high quality. While provision is improving, it's not doing so fast enough. Most worryingly, the lower-quality provision in disadvantaged areas means that the positive effects of early-years education are less likely to be seen for the children who need it most."
The high cost and varying quality of childcare is one of the biggest challenges for the Government and George Osborne is under pressure to announce fresh help in his March Budget. Under the current system, two-year-olds from low-income families and all three-year-olds receive 15 hours of free childcare a week. A report last year by Cathy Nutbrown, a childcare expert, called for improvements in the quality of early-years education.
Yet the Cabinet is split along coalition lines on how to fund cheaper childcare, with an announcement on tax allowances for parents, due earlier this month, delayed. Plans by the Education minister Liz Truss to relax childcare ratios are also being held up by internal government rows.
In the most deprived 20 per cent of areas in England – based on the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index – some 64 per cent of childcare providers were rated "good" or "outstanding". In the least deprived 20 per cent of neighbourhoods, 79 per cent of nurseries and childminders were rated in the higher-quality categories.
Because deprivation varies greatly within a local authority area, the figures are calculated on a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood level but the Ofsted data for some council areas also reveals a gap between rich and poor. In the London borough of Newham, for example, just 55 per cent of childcare providers are "good" or "outstanding", while in Manchester this figure is 57 per cent. In Richmond-upon-Thames, south-west London, 87 per cent of providers are "good" or "outstanding" and, in Bracknell Forest, 84 per cent are rated in the higher-quality categories.
The gap between the development of children on the brink of going to school, depending on where they live, is also wide. In Middlesbrough, just 51 per cent of youngsters have reached a "good" level; in South Tyneside and Blackpool, the figure is 52 per cent; in Halton, Cheshire, it is 54 per cent; and in Liverpool, Oldham, Hull, Telford, Luton and Tower Hamlets, it is 55 per cent. By contrast, in Rutland, the level is 78 per cent; in the City of London and Trafford, it is 75 per cent; in Cheshire East and Greenwich, 74 per cent; for Richmond-upon-Thames and Solihull, 72 per cent; in Kingston-upon-Thames and Bexley, 71 per cent; and in Hammersmith and Fulham, it is 70 per cent.
Anand Shukla, chief executive of the Daycare Trust, said: "The Government has shown that it is committed to improving childcare quality; for example, by focusing funding for disadvantaged two- year-olds through good-quality childcare providers.
"It is essential that any government change in the next few weeks to childcare policy does not jeopardise quality – and the ratio of children to staff is a key factor in ensuring high-quality provision. As the Policy Exchange report demonstrates, the quality of childcare is markedly lower in disadvantaged areas and we are very concerned that the mooted relaxation of child-to-staff ratios will make this problem worse."
YouGov polling of 1,637 people carried out for Policy Exchange shows that nearly half of people earning less than £20,000 consider cost an important factor when choosing childcare, compared with 34 per cent of people earning between £40,000 and £60,000. Some 45 per cent of people on incomes of less than £20,000 considered quality of childcare provider was an important factor, compared with 60 per cent of people in the higher-income bracket.
Childcare bill: £300
Ainsley Rees, 33, from Hereford, and his wife, Lisa, are both nurses. Their combined income is £32,000. They have two daughters: Olivia, two, and Molly, seven
"Our youngest goes to nursery two days a week and our oldest goes to after-school club. The nursery is very good. The kids get a lot out of it, and they learn a lot of social skills.
"Our childcare works out well, maybe because we had the right nursery in the beginning, and our working hours can fit around our childcare. Our difficulty is that we do early shifts, and only a few nurseries in the city start at seven o'clock.
"It costs us about £300 a month and it's manageable. People earning less than us must really struggle."
Childcare bill: £800
Sarah Stimson, 38, from Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex, works for a charity and her husband, Paul, is in shipping. Their combined income is £70,000. Their son, Franklin, is nine months old
"I work four days a week, two in London and two from home. My son goes to nursery all the days I'm working; it costs about £800 a month.
"I would like to work three days a week instead of four, but to be able to go to work and talk to grown-ups is good. And I think it's good for him to see other adults and children.
"It's a lovely nursery. They've got a chef who cooks the meals and the girl who looks after him is really lovely. Some days he's there with only a few children and some days there are lots; he gets the best of both worlds."