Narrowing the Gap? EPAs to Children’s Centres 1971-2021: 50 years of research on implementation and outcomes. By Teresa Smith

This span of 50 years saw a range of early years initiatives focussed on expanding early years services of different kinds, increasing take-up especially by disadvantaged families/ in disadvantaged areas, and improving outcomes particularly for the most disadvantaged. ‘Daycare’ is a slippery term with a number of meanings, from an all-encompassing term covering all forms of early years provision, to one explicitly referring to care for children enabling parents to work. The two principal drivers for daycare in the UK historically have been 1) educational, particularly for disadvantaged children, and 2) care as provision for children of non-coping parents, or as cover for working parents. These two strands interweave throughout the history.

The 1960s saw a scatter of nursery schools and part-time nursery classes (this was a historical distribution across the country) after the run-down of the war-time nurseries. There was daycare for statutory cases (family violence, breakdown), while the voluntary sector Preschool Playgroups Association (PPA) founded in 1962 as a pressure group for nursery education, ran groups for children’s social development but not daycare: relatively few married women with young children worked full-time, and were mainly provided for by the growth in private childminding with poor standards. The Urban Programme (1968) for disadvantaged areas took up the baton to expand nursery education, and included funds for nursery provision. The Educational Priority Areas (EPAs) programme, drawing on 1950s and 60s US interventions, focussed on cognitive development in disadvantaged youngsters and led to part-time nursery classes in primary schools as proposed in Thatcher’s 1972 White Paper, Education, A Framework for Expansion, but the driver was explicitly not daycare for working women. Later programmes, in contrast, explicitly promoted daycare for working women: Wraparound Care (2000)and the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative (NNI) (2001-4)Over the last 50 years the rates of working (including full-time) women with children under five have dramatically increased, while families with children have fared badly in housing, benefits, and wages; over the last 10 years cuts in benefits have fallen particularly heavily on households with children.

Our increasing understanding of the importance of high quality early years provision should be seen within this socio-economic context. The education theme and the need for parents to work are in dynamic tension. Most recent research shows that intervention programmes have modest but positive outcomes on children’s intellectual and behavioural development and on family functioning. The tension between ‘targeted’ and ‘open access/ universal’ services continues. There is still no ‘magic bullet’ in early education, and still no clarity about how best to respond to growing demand for affordable child care and the need to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor children.

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