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An initial assessment of the 2-year-old free childcare entitlement: Drivers of take-up and impact on early years outcomes

This report looks at the early signs of impact that the introduction of the 2-year-old entitlement has had. The expansion of government-funded childcare to disadvantaged 2-year-olds was specifically targeted at reducing the early years attainment gap and is intended to better prepare disadvantaged children for the start of formal schooling. It is important to understand the impact the policy is having and how best to support take-up in order to maximise its potential to improve child outcomes.


From September 2013, the 2-year-old entitlement for free early education was introduced in England. It provides 15 hours of free childcare per week for 2-year-olds from disadvantaged households. This significantly expanded the pre-existing provision of publicly funded childcare for disadvantaged households with young children. Take-up was initially low but by January 2018 had increased to around 72% nationally. However, there remains considerable local variation, with the Department for Education (DfE) estimating that take-up across local authorities ranges from near-universal to a low of around 47%.

DfE has identified understanding the drivers of low childcare take-up among disadvantaged children and providing support to communities in which take-up is low as one of the potential mechanisms for reducing the socioeconomic gradient in early years educational outcomes.

What contribution does this report make?

In this report we set out to improve understanding of both what explains local variation in take-up of childcare and the impact of take-up on the government’s main measures of pupil progress in the early years. Specifically:

  • Using DfE pupil-level data, we explore the drivers of take-up in the first two years following the introduction of the 2-year-old entitlement.
  • We consider pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) at the beginning of Reception and explore the factors associated with whether or not they attended government-funded childcare aged 2 in 2013/14 and 2014/15.

We consider the recent trends in the early years progress measures at the end of Reception, specifically for FSM pupils. We test whether there has been any association between the expansion of government-funded childcare among disadvantaged 2-year-olds and improvements in early years attainment.