Poor children in private preschools 'at double disadvantage'


Education Editor

Children from poor backgrounds are at a double disadvantage if they go to private or voluntary nurseries and preschools, says a major study out today.

They not only fall behind in language skills before they start at nurseries but the gap then widens because the standard of provision is worse.

The report, carried out by researchers from Oxford University and published by the Nuffield Foundation, shows that standards in the private sector in disadvantaged areas is of “lower quality” than in those settings serving more affluent homes.

“In other words, the children most in need of good quality early provisions are actually amongst the least likely to receive it,” it concludes.

It describes its findings as being of “serious concern”, adding that it shows that the private and voluntary sector is “not effectively rising to the challenge and offering comparable quality for disadvantaged children”.

“A clear gradient was evident with quality decreasing as deprivation increases,” it adds.

The report looked at provision in more than 1,000 private sector early years providers and 160 state-maintained nursery and primary schools. It exempted state run nursery schools from the criticism, saying that their provision was sometimes even better than that provided in more affluent areas.

However, it noted that about 30 per cent of children from disadvantaged homes attended private sector provision.

One of the reasons given for the gap in quality is the lack of qualified teaching staff in private sector provision.

“Children growing up in difficult circumstances are more at risk of language delays and behavioural problems and more likely to speak English as a second language,” it says. “Greater resources and more skilled, informed and flexible practice are required to meet their needs effectively.”

However, it adds: “There is... reason to believe that [private and voluntary] settings in deprived areas are less likely to have access to the resources they need to meet the challenge of catering for disadvantaged children than settings with more affluent catchments.

The result is the disadvantaged pupils find themselves in a catch-22 situation, behind on language skills when they start early years provision and likely to fall further behind their more affluent peers.

The lower quality provision particularly affected communications and interaction with the children and support for learning, language and literacy.

Figures show that while all school classes are led by a qualified graduate, less than half the private and voluntary nurseries and preschools employ one, and only eight per cent employ more than one.

The report recommends increasing the number of graduates working in the private sector through the use of the pupil premium, which has just been extended to cover enrolling disadvantaged three and four-year-olds. A recent report by education standards watchdog Ofsted showed 76 per cent of provision in disadvantaged areas was good or outstanding compared with 86 per cent in more affluent areas.

Sandra Mathers, lead author of the report, said: “It is vital that we equip nurseries and preschools with the tools and support they need to help disadvantaged children overcome the odds and reach their full potential.”

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