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Early learning gap between children in and out of poverty widens in half of areas across England

Save the Children, 18th December 2018 

New analysis reveals how poverty holds back preschool development in different parts of England. 


  • Children from low income families are far more likely to struggle with basic skills such as speaking in full sentences during their first year of school. 
  •    In half of Local Authorities poorer children are being left further behind their better off classmates
  • ·  Charity calls for government to improve support for quality early years care to close gap

The early learning gap between children in poverty and their peers has widened in 76 out of 152 local authorities in England, new analysis from Save the Children has revealed.

Poorer children starting primary school in these areas are being left further behind their classmates in basic but vital skills such as speaking in full sentences, following simple instructions and expressing themselves.

Nationwide, these figures are part of a significant disparity between preschool children in poverty and their peers, which is widening for the first time in four years.

Steven McIntosh, Save the Children’s Director of UK Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, said:

“Our analysis shows that a lack of support for childcare quality in England is still letting poverty dictate children’s chances. Not only that, but the gulf between children in poverty and their peers is widening in many places.

“Children who start school without the tools to learn find it incredibly difficult to catch up, which risks further locking children into poverty in the future.

“The government has made welcome commitments to close the early learning gap. But they are ignoring an early years staffing crisis that will continue to undermine children’s potential – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is a national shortage of graduate early years teachers who are specifically trained to help children who are falling behind.”

The analysis reveals that progress in closing the early learning gap has stalled in 22 local authorities. The gap is shrinking in 52.

Overall, the biggest early learning gap is found in West Berkshire, where disadvantaged five-year olds are 33 percentage points more likely than their classmates to have fallen behind.

By contrast, Hackney is the only local authority in the country where there is no early learning gap at all. The gap there has narrowed by 4 pp and children from poorer families now do just as well as their better off peers.

Regionally, the biggest gap is found in the South West, at 22 percentage points. That’s twice the difference in top performing London, where it is 11 percentage points.

The gap has widened in three regions – the North East, East and South West. It is closing in just two – Yorkshire and the Humber, and East Midlands.

Across the country two in five (43%) of all poor children are struggling with basic skills at age five, compared to just over a quarter (26%) of their better-off classmates – a national early learning gap of 17 percentage points.

Save the Children conducted a local analysis of the recently released ‘Early Years Foundation Stage’ results for 2017/18, which reveal the numbers of children reaching expected levels of development in key areas during their first year of primary school.

Regional breakdown

Ordered by size of early learning gap. Positive numbers mean the gap is increasing. Negative numbers mean the gap is closing.



Early learning attainment gap (percentage points)

Change in early learning attainment gap (percentage points)

Percentage of children in poverty not achieving a good level of development


Number of children in poverty not achieving a good level of development

Percentage of better off children not achieving a good level of development


England overall












West Midlands






North East






North West






Yorkshire and the Humber






East Midlands






East of England






South East






South West







See separate table for complete breakdown of local authorities


Recent government figures show that the number of people taking a key qualification that could help narrow this gap has fallen for the fourth year running.  365 people have enrolled in early years teacher training courses in 2018-19, a dramatic drop of a third compared to the previous year.

Early years teachers are trained to support children’s early development, and to identify and support those who are struggling. This includes providing parents with help to support their children’s development at home. Evidence shows early years teachers benefit disadvantaged children the most.


But the charity’s analysis has revealed a shortage of around 2,000 early years teachers in the most disadvantaged areas, where they are most needed. The charity recently published a report, It All Starts Here, which reveals dissatisfaction with pay and conditions is causing problems with recruitment, and calls on the government to invest in helping providers to employ early years teachers.


Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds recently pledged to halve the number of pupils starting school behind in talking and reading skills by 2028, but earlier this year the government axed a key commitment to address the early years teacher shortage – a decision criticised by charities, schools and nursery leaders.




·         Nationally, this year’s figures cover 652,400 children. 28.5% (185,934) did not achieve a good level of development.

·         Girls do better than boys – 78.4% of girls attained a good level of development, compared with 65% of boys. The gender gap is decreasing, but very slowly, from 13.7 percentage points last year, to 13.5 percentage points this year.

·         Children in poverty are those who have claimed eligibility for free school meals through a qualifying benefit such as income support or universal credit.

·         This year’s early years training enrolment figures can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/initial-teacher-training-trainee-number-census-2018-to-2019

·         Save the Children’s report, It All Starts Here, draws on 368 survey responses and 51 phone interviews with the early years sector, including early years teachers, course leaders for the EYT programme, academics, and members of the wider early years workforce.

·         It reveals underlying causes of the childcare staffing crisis holding back poorer children, including dissatisfaction with pay, status and conditions. The charity is calling for:

o   The government to invest in recruiting and retaining EYTs in the most disadvantaged areas by:

§  Trialling early career payments for the first five years of working in private, voluntary, and independent settings in disadvantaged areas mirroring an existing scheme for secondary maths teachers.

§  Trialling a salary supplement scheme to top up wages, to enable providers to afford the additional cost of employing a graduate.

o   The government to work with the sector to create an example job description for early years teachers to ensure that settings place graduates in roles where they can have the greatest impact

o   The government to work with the sector to establish a national induction resource for all newly qualified early years teachers.

·         All percentages are rounded to the nearest whole percentage point


With any enquiries or to arrange an interview with a spokesperson, please contact Dan Stewart on d.stewart@savethechildren.org.uk / +44 (0)20 3763 0119. Out of hours please contact media@savethechildren.org.uk / 07831 650409.